An injury to one of a team’s top singles players would derail most programs. It wasn’t a cakewalk for Merrimack College either, but now that Shakee Messina is back in the lineup, the Warriors are playing some of their best tennis of the season.
Shakee and her sister, Grace, are the the No. 1 and No. 2 singles players on the team. The Warriors (10-4) will travel to long island on Friday to take on Adelphi (14-3), the top seed in the Northeast-10 tournament. On Wednesday, Merrimack beat St. Michaels to advance.
“We not only missed Shakee on the court as a player, but as a leader too,” Merrimack head coach Aaron Bergeron said. “She was one of the players that our younger players really looked up to. She still is. Not having her in the lineup affected us not only in what we were able to do on the court, but also in our leadership. There has definitely been a different feeling since she has returned.
“I like our chances, I think we’re really playing well. We get another crack at (Adelphi), which I know our girls are excited about. We’ll need to be focused and play really well to beat them, they’re a great team.”
Adelphi beat the Warriors, 6-3, earlier this season, but three of those singles matches were decided by one set. In fact, one of the doubles matches went to a tiebreaker, which was settled by a score of 9–8.
There is no question with Shakee back in the lineup, the Warriors are a better team. But Bergeron believes that the roles his younger players were thrust into because of the injury – playing against higher competition in particular – makes the Warriors a much more balanced team.
“In the long run we obviously never wanted to see her get injured, obviously,” Bergeron said. “But looking back, because it happened, taking a positive would be that it gave our younger players an opportunity to play against more skilled competition. I think that is going to help prepare them for not only this season but seasons in the future.”
The Warriors are 6-2 in their last eight, winning 44 of 63 individual matches.
“I’m not sure that saying we’re peaking at the right time is the right way to put it,” Bergeron said, “but I do feel really confident in our team. I feel like we are playing really well right now. We are healthy, and that’s a big part of it, but I also think that the girls are really focused.
“It especially allowed us to learn more about our lineup for the doubles teams. We were putting together a lot of other teams and it gave us a lot more looks with different combinations. Otherwise, we might not have done that. I think we found some pairings now that are working really well for us.”
The Warriors left for Adelphi on Thursday afternoon. The earlier match with Panthers, which was on Sept. 21, and also at Adelphi, marked the only time this season top singles player Grace Messina lost a match.
Being on the road can provide more focus, but it also has its drawbacks.
“You could say it is an advantage because the players only need to focus on tennis, but they also have a lot of other things going on,” Bergeron said. “It is an advantage in some ways, but also obviously a disadvantage in some ways. The girls have a lot of schoolwork to do, I know some of them are working on projects for school, so it can be a little disruptive. We would rather be playing at home, of course, but it is what it is and I know we are going to go out there and do the best we can.”
Merrimack A ‘No-Brainer’ For Bergeron
Aaron Bergeron had been coaching at Southern Maine for the past two seasons, when an opening at Merrimack in the familiar Northeast-10 Conference opened up.
Bergeron is a 2012 graduate of Stonehill College.
“I was at Southern Maine and loved it there,” he said. “I fell in love with coaching there, and realized it was something I wanted to make a career out of. When the Merrimack job was open, I was familiar with the league from being at Stonehill, and as hard as it was to leave Southern Maine, this was a no-brainer for me. After seeing more of what the school has invested and what they have done, this is the place I wanted to be.”
Mike McMahon covers Merrimack College for The Eagle Tribune and is the founder and managing editor of The Mack Report as well as on staff as a senior writer at College Hockey News. Follow him on Twitter @MikeMcMahonCHN