A year ago John Habeeb coached the Caribou boys tennis team to an undefeated season and the Class B state championship.
This week, he’ll attempt to lead the Vikings’ girls tennis team to similar heights.
The top-ranked Caribou girls (14-0) will square off against No. 2 Waterville (14-0) at Colby College in Waterville at 1 p.m. Wednesday — weather permitting — in one of six Eastern Maine championship matches encompassing Classes A, B and C.
Caribou advanced to the final with a hard-fought 4-1 victory over defending regional champion Camden Hills of Rockport in Saturday’s semifinals.
That the Vikings are in position to win another regional crown — the program last won back-to-back titles in 2004 and 2005 — should come as no major surprise given the team’s prominence in regional tennis circles over the last two decades.
Caribou won four straight Class A state championships from 1992 to 1995, as well as additional Eastern Maine Class B crowns in 1999 and 2000.
But this year’s squad is exceedingly young, with sophomores Jenna Selander and Laura Collins and freshman Carlee Pinette playing singles with juniors Liz Barbosa and Missy Nadeau at first doubles and sophomore Alyson Michaud and freshman Katie Keaton at second doubles.
And while Habeeb knew his young squad had great potential for success even before the season began, an undefeated run to the regional final wasn’t high among his list of expectations.
“I don’t know if I anticipated this two years down the road, to be honest,” he said. “You’ve just got to take it year by year, and then you’ve got to look at the competition from year to year.”
Early season victories over Presque Isle and Madawaska boosted the team’s confidence, while Selander, a talented three-sport athlete, has been symbolic of the team’s improvement.
Seeded just seventh in northern Maine singles play last spring, she emerged this season to advance to the state singles Round of 16 while compiling a 13-1 record in regular-season and playoff matches.
“She’s just a very strong athlete who has great tennis potential,” said Habeeb.
A late-season victory over Ellsworth ensured the Vikings the No. 1 seed in the region — important in that the northernmost team in Class B could play home playoff matches until the neutral-site regional final.
Although in this case, it’s not so neutral, since Waterville will be playing the Vikings at Colby, which is less than a mile from the Purple Panthers’ home courts on North Street in the Elm City.
Waterville, the Eastern B champion in both 2006 and 2007, also was undefeated entering postseason play last spring, but was upended by Presque Isle in the semifinals.
The Purple Panthers avenged that loss in this year’s semifinals with a 3-2 victory over the Wildcats fueled by strong doubles play.
Waterville won at third singles and first and second doubles, and while its believed that the final matches Caribou’s singles strength against Waterville’s doubles strength, Habeeb also is optimistic about his doubles tandems.
“I was really proud of my second doubles team [Saturday], they were down 4-1 in the second set but came back to win [7-5],” he said. “And my juniors at first double are playing with confidence, they really want to win.”
Eagles buoyed by steady growth
Justin Harding joined the Ellsworth boys tennis team as a freshman with no great expectations.
It had been a few years, after all, since the Eagles had won back-to-back Eastern Maine Class B titles in 2001 and 2002.
“I hadn’t played in junior high, so when I went out for tryouts as a freshman I thought whatever happens happens,” he said.
What’s happened during Harding’s years at Ellsworth is steady growth — from a 2-10 record as a freshman, to 4-8 in 2007 and 8-4 last year.
And this spring coach Brian Higgins’ club is 14-0 entering Wednesday afternoon’s regional championship match against 13-1 Presque Isle.
“It’s been a long road back,” said Higgins. “But we had our top three singles players back from last year as well as one of our doubles players, and we had three freshmen coming in who we knew would be competitive.”
Ellsworth is anchored by senior lefthander Spencer Small at first singles and classmate Nick Reese — who transferred to the school from North Carolina as a junior — at second singles. Junior Alexander Keefe, who won the clinching match in the Eagles’ 4-1 semifinal victory over John Bapst of Bangor, rounds out the singles contingent.
Freshmen Dylan Toothaker and Tyler Small play first doubles, while Harding and Brandan Albee play second doubles.
“I kind of hoped we’d be undefeated, but I didn’t know if we would,” said Reese. “I knew we could go a lot further than last year, but we just had to keep improving.”
No. 2 Ellsworth will face a top-ranked Presque Isle team coming off a 3-2 semifinal victory over No. 4 Waterville that featured three three-set matches and three tiebreakers.
Coach Tim Dolley’s Eagles swept the singles competition, with Alex Carter winning in straight sets while Ben Picard and Caleb Mathers earned three-set victories. The Wildcats first doubles team of Chris Cawley and Kyle Gilson dropped a tight 6-4, 7-6 decision, while Connor Shaw and Mike Picard won a second-set tiebreaker before falling in three sets.