WARREN - In the 41 or so years that John F. Kennedy coach Joe Marino has been involved in high school tennis, never before has he coached an entire team with such potential.
With this in mind, Marino told his players before the start of the season that the opportunity to be the best team to ever come out of Kennedy was a possibility, and before the individual sectional tournament begins next week, the team has already surpassed that goal.
Boasting a 14-2 record, the 2013 Eagles clinched a spot in the Northeast district final of the Ohio Tennis Coaches Association team tournament, the farthest any team from the area has gone in the tournament, and are now one match away from qualifying as a team to the state semifinals in Columbus on June 2.
Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple
The John F. Kennedy tennis team, from left, are: Daniel LaPolla, Caelan Phillips, Tyler Cole, Danielle Covelli, Jad Abdul-Aal, Billy Phillips and coach Joe Marino. Missing from the picture is John Nader.
"I said in the beginning of the season, this is the best team Kennedy's ever had," Marino said. "I've had better individuals - state qualifiers and state champions - but we've never had a better balanced team. We're as good as any team in Northeast Ohio.
"We've had no tirades, no tantrums. They've been focused from Day 1. I told them way back in February that we have the chance to do something really big. This has been my most rewarding year out of all of them."
To get to this point, the Eagles faced tough opposition, including the defending Division II state champion University School last week to move into the district final.
As a coach, Marino's teams hadn't recorded a win against the Preppers before the 3-2 win this season. It came down to the Eagles' second-ranked singles player in the team tournament, Tyler Cole, to punch the team's ticket to play either Hawken or Beachwood before darkness fell.
This was a big win for the players as well, considering University School's dominance when the two teams met last season.
"Last year we lost to them, 5-0 - we got blown away," Cole said. "So, this year to beat them 3-2, it felt really nice, especially since they were the defending state champions."
As much as the deep run in the team tournament is a blessing, it messes with the lineups, Marino said, which could affect how players will do in the sectional and district tournaments.
In the team tournament, Marino employs Jad Abdul-Aal, Cole and John Nader as the team's top three singles players, but in the individual tournament, Cole and Nader will pair up to attempt a deep run in the doubles tournament, as they had in the previous two seasons. The two are the first-seeded pair in the sectional tournament.
During the sectional tournament next week, Kennedy might be forced to faced either Hawken or Beachwood, which might screw with its rhythm, but for athletes who competed as kids in both singles and doubles, Nader is confident that he and Cole should be able to switch mentalities.
"In tennis, you already have to be very versatile because there are so many different aspects in the game," Nader said. "There's athleticism, the focus and just having the deft touch for certain shots like drop shots. There are a lot of different changes between singles and doubles, but as a tennis player, you just have to be ready to compete in all forms."
Also, Marino has switched up the doubles' pairings during the regular season and team tournaments between senior captain Danielle Covelli, junior Billy Phillips and sophomores Caelan Phillips and Daniel LaPolla.
Despite a lack of continuity, these four have played a big role in the team's success this season, and Covelli said it's because of the close bond the team has that allows them to overcome the constant change.
"We're all really good friends," Covelli said. "That's good because you have to have chemistry with who you're playing with. We've been switched around a lot this year, and we've done really good. It's important to get along with everyone in case there is a change."
When it comes to the district team final, the Eagles might get a boost from a player returning back from injury.
Called the team's best doubles players by Marino, senior James LaPolla has missed most of the season after having surgery because of an undisclosed injury, and Marino said James might be cleared to play next week.
Whether or not James LaPolla is inserted into the lineup or not, Abdul-Aal, the second-seeded singles player in the individual sectional tournament and a state qualifier last year, is confident that he will be going to Columbus with his teammates.
"It's an awesome experience in Columbus," Abdul-Aal said. "Going with the whole team would be an amazing end to my senior year."