By BRIAN CUNNIFF
It’s been another fine season for the Middle Township High School boys tennis team.
The Panthers picked up yet another Cape-Atlantic National Conference championship by going unbeaten in conference play. In fact, the Panthers lost just one match overall – against unbeaten Mainland – to finish the regular season at 18-1.
Now the focus turns to the state playoffs, which begin this week. As the No. 2 seed in the South Jersey Group I Tournament, Middle enjoys a first-round bye before taking on No. 7 Pennsville or No. 10 Penns Grove on Wednesday. A win in that match would put Middle in the semifinal round on Friday. The South Jersey title match is scheduled for early next week.
Middle has reached the sectional title match in each of the last six seasons of competition, winning in 2016, 2018 and 2019. There was no season in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We definitely have the same goals like the ones we’ve established in past years,” said 17th-year Middle coach Matt Gilbert. “We try to capture our conference first and then second make an appearance in the final again in South Jersey. I feel we’re on that same kind of road as always, which is great.”
Xander Hardin leads the way for Middle. The senior has posted a solid 11-7 record at first singles so far.
“He’s beaten the players he’s been expected to beat and he’s certainly not losing to anyone that he shouldn’t,” Gilbert said of his top player. “He’s been a little better than expectations.”
Sophomore Justin Wen has been an extremely important player for Middle. He made the jump from second doubles to second singles in just one season and has won 18 of his 21 matches thus far.
“Justin worked tremendously in the offseason and in the summer,” Gilbert said. “He’s played in some USTA tournaments and that’s really upped his confidence for match play.”
Senior Shane Kern rounds out the singles lineup. He’s been extremely reliable at the No. 3 position. He played in the same slot last season.
“Shane went 17-4 last year and now he’s 18-2 so that’s been big for us, for him to improve on his record,” Gilbert said. “He’ll be a key guy for us if we get deep in the playoffs.”
Juniors Steve Berrodin and Will Casterline have won 19 of 21 matches at first doubles. The two are also teammates on Middle’s soccer team.
Sophomore Simon Hardin and junior Markos Sakoulas have lost just once at second doubles.
“Our doubles teams have been the cornerstones to our success,” Gilbert said. “Every year, we take pride in having outstanding doubles teams and this year is no different.”
Middle will be at home for Wednesday’s quarterfinal. A win puts the team at home again for the semifinal round Friday. If the seeds hold to form, Middle would travel to No. 1 Haddon Township for Tuesday’s title match.
“We still feel there’s something to prove we’ve been able to sustain what we’ve done,” Gilbert said. “We want to get back to the final and compete again.”