2002 was the last time Holmdel appeared in the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions final, and head coach Chuck Chelednik knew several things would have to come together if they were to make another run at the title.
The Hornets displayed their usual dominance in Shore Conference play early in the season, taking home the Monmouth County Tournament title and the Shore Conference Tournament title.
But there was still work to be done on the coaching front if the Hornets were going to end up being one of the top teams in the state. Chelednik had to deal with a completely different first and second doubles lineup, but it would be a mid-season change by the coach that would propel the Hornets in the state tournament.
The move would send Colombian native Juan Angel-Alvarado, who was playing in his first year for the Hornets, from first doubles to third singles. Sam Joynson and Ethan Wong would take over at first doubles and freshman Dennis Barlotta and David Lin were set at second doubles.
“That switch proved to be really big for us,” Chelednik said. “You have to give credit to the players too, a switch like that impacts each position, and if they don’t have trust in their coach and buy into it, it’s not going to work.”
There was no lack of trust from the players to their coach, as the Hornets showed at the start of the state tournament. The Hornets won consecutive Group II titles for the first time since 1983-84, along with a berth in the TOC.
Holmdel’s clear strength came at the top of the lineup, but with a surprise twist of sophomore Mike Chen taking over for senior Derek Liu at first singles. Liu had played three straight seasons at first singles for the Hornets, but it would be the sophomore who would get the top kids in the state this year.
“To tell you the truth, I think the move was harder on me then it was on both of them,” Chelednik said. “It’s just a testament to the type of player and person Derek is, he just wanted what was best for the team.”
According to Chelednik both Liu and Chen are good friends who live just down the street from each other. It was as if Liu was passing the torch to his friend and underclassman for future seasons to come.
“I was wondering how it would all play out, as the state tournament continued,” Chelednik said.
After a 5-0 TOC quarterfinal win over No. 6 New Providence, the third-seeded Hornets would be tested in the semifinals against second-seeded Newark Academy.
Ironically, it would be the humble senior who would have to rescue his team from another semifinal loss in the TOC. With the match deadlocked at 2-2, the match came down to Liu at second singles, who had already dropped a first set to Newark Academys’ Chris Paradis.
Liu showed his patience, consistency, and overall veteran status in climbing back in the match point by point. He would win the match in three sets and send his team to its first TOC title in 11 years.
Although Holmdel would eventually fall to Millburn in the finals 4-1, it was Liu who secured the Hornets’ only team point at second singles, in his final match during team play.
“He is definitely one of the best kids I’ve ever coached both on and off the court,” Chelednik said.
It will be a tough void to fill for the Hornets next year graduating Liu and Ethan Wong this season.
“Hopefully the younger guys are still hungry to get back to where we were,” Chelednik said. “Once again things have to come together for us, and we just have to work on improving as a team.”