When a team makes a turnaround from perennial underdog to contender, it sparks everyone on that squad to even greater success.
The Dunellen High School boys tennis team has used a combination of factors for this happy reversal of fortune – strong senior leadership, motivated and talented players, good old-fashioned hard work and team chemistry, among others.
The Destroyers’ success was rewarded this week when they were seeded second in the NJSIAA North II Group 1 sectional, its highest ranking in recent memory.
The Destroyers are currently 12-3, their best in the 11 years that Cuyler Tobin has been at the helm of the program.
“It’s all the right things at the right time,” said Tobin of his team’s success. “I think Dunellen is having the best year this year primarily because we’ve had the right mix of kids. We’re on a two-year stretch with the right kids. They’ve gone through a rough period, especially our seniors, in their freshman and sophomore year, and they stuck with it and know what it takes to be successful – and they’ve taken on a leadership role.”
The Destroyers, who lost twice to Highland Park and once to Metuchen in the regular season, got a first-round bye and will take on Harrison in a rematch of last year’s state sectional quarterfinals next week.
The experienced senior starters on Dunellen’s large team of 20 players, have a strong influence on underclassmen.
Senior Tyler Conroy, who is 10-4 at second singles, said it all came together because the team is hungrier and more competitive than it had been recently. He noted that Dunellen’s record was 1-10 in his freshman year.
“It’s just been a lot of hard work throughout the year,” Conroy said. “A lot of people on the team are self-taught. Coach Tobin is the only coach I’ve ever had and that’s true for most of the team. Our first-singles player (Jesse McGrath) is only a junior, and he also set the tone to make us want to get better – we didn’t want him to embarrass us.”
Conroy said the depth of the squad is making a huge difference this year, that it’s not just the top seven boys, but players through No. 11 who are able to fill in and compete.
Conroy brings three years of varsity experience to the team, showing steady progress. As a freshman and sophomore, he played first doubles, and won the third singles spot in his junior year.
Third singles teammate Al Nieliwocki echoed the sentiment.
“There’s a lot of good senior leadership,” said Nieliwocki, who has played varsity tennis since his freshman year. “Me and Tyler hold everyone accountable. We did a lot of work in the offseason, and hit with each other to make each other better. We knew it was our last year, so we worked hard.”
Senior Matt Palka, 12-2 as part of the first doubles tandem, attributed the team’s success to its deep bench.
“I think it’s definitely the depth of our team,” Palka said. “And everyone has two-to-three years of varsity experience – overall that’s a huge factor. We go in and we know what to do – we’ve had tough losses and close wins, and we support each other.”
Tobin, who also coaches Dunellen’s girls team, has high expectations for his boys in the postseason.
“Last year we had our program’s first win in the state against Harrison. We’re excited we (again) made states but we’d like to get a few more wins this year,” Tobin said. “That’s our goal right now. We’d like to make a little more noise and have people hear about Dunellen tennis.”
Nieliwocki said he and his teammates have the same goals as their veteran coach – they want to make an impact.
“We used to be a team that everyone just rolled over and beat,” Nieliowocki added. “Now we want to make our mark and not be that team anymore.”