Bears’ Section One Team Title Caps a Season to Remember

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Rachel Lim
Rachel Lim

By Andy Jacobs

With the start of the 2016 fall sports season just days away, Briarcliff girls’ tennis coach Don Hamlin received quite a jolt. Actually, it was a double dose of welcome news – two of the most talented players in all of Section One, senior Loren Haukova and freshman Rebecca Lim, had decided they wanted to join his roster.

“I was in South Carolina a week before the season and Loren called me and said her coach agreed to let her play high school this year,” recalled Hamlin. “So I was like, ‘that’s awesome.’ And then, I don’t know, maybe a day later, two days later, I get an email from Mrs. Lim asking me if it would be OK if Rebecca played. It took me about a tenth of a second to reply, ‘yes.’”

With Haukova and Lim suddenly aboard, Briarcliff instantly turned into perhaps the most formidable tennis team in the region and the Bears’ home court became a destination few foeslooked forward to visiting.  By the time the regular season came to an end, the Bears had conquered 14 consecutive opponents without anyone in their lineup dropping even a single set. 

“I knew once Loren and Rebecca decided that they’re gonnaplay high school tennis this year, we would be very strong,” said Hamlin. “I didn’t think we would be this strong where we would go through the season undefeated. Both of them were a surprise. We had no idea going into the summer if either one of them were going to play.”

Astoundingly, Briarcliff singles and doubles players combined to win all 66 sets they played, from their opening-day home victory over Solomon Schecter to their closing triumph over Dobbs Ferry at Mercy College a month later. Perhaps not surprising, the Bears then proceeded to overwhelm three straight teams – Pelham, White Plains and Rye Neck – on successive days to capture the Section One team championship.

“These kids work, they’re fun, they love each other and, honestly, it’s been great to coach them,” said Hamlin. “We feel very fortunate that we had this team tournament this year. They couldn’t wait to play more tennis.”

Just a couple of days before the team tourney began, Lim provided the individual highlight of the Bears’ remarkable season. Despite being unseeded, she emerged as the 2016 Section One singles champion, defeating Yorktown’s Caitlyn Ferrante 6-1, 6-3 in the title match at Sound Shore Indoor Tennis in Port Chester. En route to reaching the sectional final, she also avenged a surprising loss to Pleasantville standout Olivia Ashton in the conference tournament a week earlier. 

“I just played my best because I knew I wasn’t seeded,” said Lim. “I knew everybody was gonna be really hard. But then I just played my best and I ended up doing pretty well. I was so happy and excited and surprised how well I played. It was just really fun.”

“Her level of play was unreal,” said Hamlin. “I mean, she plays against Loren every day. So I know how good she is. But to see her play the second, third, and then really the girl (Ferrante) that should’ve been the No. 1 seed was the fourth seed because she was upset in her conference tournament, to play as well as she did against those kids was amazing. She was SO good. I was amazed how well she played.”

Lim, who admires pro superstars Roger Federer and Serena Williams because “they’re really good and they’re really smart on the court,” doesn’t have to look very far for inspiration. Her older sister, Rachel, is a Briarcliff junior ranked near the very top of the USTA Eastern’s junior rankings in two age classes and once was featured in Sports Illustrated’s ‘Faces in the Crowd’ section after winning the Longines Future Aces Tennis Tournament. 

“She’s really a big role model,” said Lim about her sister, two and a half years her elder. “I try to do everything that she does because she’s really good. I play every day and I practice a lot and I hope to get way better.”

So too does Haukova, a smooth-hitting southpaw whose own quest for improvement brought her to the John McEnroe Tennis Academy on Randall’s Island for intensive training starting six years ago.

“He watches us and gives us tips,” she said of the tennis legend known as much for his frequent on-court theatrics as his Grand Slam titles. “Yeah, I’ve gotten to play with him, and he’s really nice. I like him and he’s really supportive. He tells us not to do what he did.”

Haukova, a five-star recruit who will play next year for Boston College, had been a part of the Briarcliff team as a sophomore, but had to miss her junior season because of schedule conflicts with her training at McEnroe’s Academy. But she jumped at the chance to rejoin her classmates for her final year of high school. 

“My junior year, I couldn’t play because I was training at, like, 1 o’clock,” she said. “So I didn’t have time to come back to school and then come to high school practice and matches. But then my senior year, I wanted to play for my last year because I love Don. I love being on the team, too, and I like the girls. I knew that I’d enjoy it a lot. So I decided to play.”

That decision, and the similar one by Lim, turned junior Maxine Zaretsky, who played the lion’s share of matches a year ago at first singles, into the Bears’ No. 3 singles player this time around. Last season’s other singles players, senior Sam Simpson and sophomore Katya Didonato, wound up undefeated playing second doubles.

If those girls hadn’t accepted their new roles, the incredible success the Bears had this season might never have happened.

“I thought that might be an issue,” conceded Hamlin. “But when the girls found out that these two were playing, they couldn’t have been happier. They knew that we would be a much better team with them and they were more than accepting. They love ‘em to death. It had nothing but positive impact.”

As a result, there’ll soon be the need for some space on the school’s gymnasium walls.

“Yeah, we’ll put up a banner,” said Hamlin. “We had a celebration in school to congratulate Rebecca for making it to States. And it gave me an opportunity to talk about the rest of the team’s undefeated season and that we were playing in the (team) finals. So the rest of the school now knows who plays and the kind of season they’ve had. It’s pretty cool.”

Even though Haukova will be in college next year and Lim is not ready to commit to another season with the Bears, Hamlin, for one, can savor what 2016 has brought to Briarcliff.

“I mean,” he said, “every coach should have an opportunity to coach a team like this.”

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