Lebanon girls tennis returns, 14 deep, after yearlong absence

By BENJAMIN ROSENBERG

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 04-22-2023 10:43 AM

LEBANON — A few short months ago, Lebanon High was facing the distinct possibility of a second consecutive season without a varsity girls tennis team.

Head coach Rob Johnstone was in Dubai last spring, where his wife is working at an American school, and in his absence just three girls signed up — and they practiced with the boys’ team because they were well short of the numbers required to form a lineup. With Crisi Patel graduating, senior Aesha Soni and junior Adaa Karanwal were the only Raiders with any experience.

But Soni and Karanwal recruited some of their friends to the team, and Johnstone convinced some students he felt would be good fits to join. Soon, Lebanon had a roster of 14 and is playing a full NHIAA Division III schedule after just one year off.

“Recruiting was a big process. It took months getting the word out,” Soni said. “We were planning to recruit this year hardcore, because last year was so unfortunate. It started right after winter sports ended.”

None of the Raiders’ 12 newcomers had played at the high school level, and some had never played at all beyond casually hitting a ball back and forth with friends and family. With less-than-ideal weather conditions condensing the preseason, Lebanon had just a week to get everyone up to speed and figure out the starting spots behind Soni and Karanwal.

The two returnees essentially became player-coaches, helping accelerate the learning curve for their teammates alongside Johnstone and his two adult assistants, Mary Teachout and Sandy Bryant. Johnstone is unable to accompany the Raiders to their road matches due to his teaching job at Windsor High, and the team first met Bryant, Johnstone’s doubles partner, on the bus to their second match of the season at Berlin.

“One of the things with newer players is they’re very unpredictable,” Soni said. “They usually go for just a safe shot, which could land anywhere because they’re inconsistent. That has actually improved my game, if anything.

“Taking the coaching role has taught me more fundamentals. I was also playing it safe, but now having that subtle coaching experience, I’m also making sure to go to the net and attack — things I would say to my peers.”

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Lebanon fell 6-3 at Kearsarge, the defending state champion, in its season opener, then lost narrow 5-4 decisions at Berlin and Conant before edging Pelham on Wednesday for its first win.

In Thursday’s home opener, another 6-3 loss to the Cougars, sophomore Hailey Schibuola played at No. 3 singles, with junior Sophie Longacre at No. 4, freshman Mari Utell at No. 5 and sophomore Amalia Mladek at No. 6 behind Soni and Karanwal at Nos. 1 and 2, respectively. Junior Hannah Rich teamed with Utell to win at No. 3 doubles.

With the road-heavy early schedule, those not in the starting lineup have stayed behind to practice with Johnstone while Teachout and/or Bryant traveled with the starters.

“You go out and there’s a real person on the other side of the net, not a coach feeding the balls, sometimes the grip gets a little tighter,” Johnstone said. “So I was worried. Not only have they never played tennis, they’ve never played tennis with 30 people standing there watching. It’s really exciting because if the baseline is being competitive … they’re young, they’re athletic, they’re totally into it.”

The Raiders’ program has been on hiatus before, as Lebanon also did not field a team in 2016 due to lack of players. Johnstone took over the following year, but the build was slow — the Raiders were winless in 2017 and recorded just two victories in 2018. They improved to 7-8 in 2019 and reached the playoffs, but any chance to build on that was taken away when the pandemic caused spring sports to be canceled in 2020.

This rebuild is on track to go much faster. Bella Direnzo and Azzlyn Arnold are the only seniors other than Soni, and both Schibuola and Longacre expressed an intent to return next year.

Schibuola played middle school tennis in Florida before moving to the Upper Valley in 2021, and her gym teacher noticed her talent watching her play pickleball in class and encouraged her to sign up. Longacre, who plays soccer in the fall and competes in cross country skiing in the winter, is now in her third spring sport in as many years after playing lacrosse as a freshman and joining the track team her sophomore year.

“The team chemistry keeps me coming back,” Longacre said. “(Johnstone) texted me early on, and they were just looking for athletic girls. You see the improvement, you see the progress, not only in yourself but in everyone else on the team. Everyone keeps lifting each other up and complimenting each other.”

Benjamin Rosenberg can be reached at brosenberg@vnews.com or 603-727-3302.

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