It's been a roller coaster ride of a year for coach Matthew Markman and his young Cutters tennis team.
Coming off a disappointing 2011, this year's squad burst onto the scene winning 10 of their first 11 matches to climb as high as fifth in the county rankings before ultimately tiring down the stretch and dropping five of eight to close the regular season.
Markman attributes the team's end-of-season slump to the grind of playing a long, competitive schedule.
"I don’t think these kids are used to playing as much tennis, playing as many tough matches in a row as they did," he said Friday, before the team's first-round state tournament match with Kearny. "Even though we played some tough competition, I’d say our level dropped a little bit in the second half of the season."
So it goes with a highly talented but largely inexperienced team. Maintaining consistency can prove to be a challenge.
"We’ve had some incredible close wins and we’ve had some absolute heartbreaking losses where we were way ahead and somebody lost focus or somebody choked up a little bit," Markman said. "Having a young team, those are the ups and downs."
The key as a coach, he said, is finding the proper balance between instilling the necessary discipline that a young team needs while still remaining supportive after a tough match.
"I’ve had weak teams which were rebuilding and it was just nothing but teaching, then I’ve had teams that made it to the state sectional which basically kind of ran themselves," Markman said. "This type of team I feel is like the most work -- the up-and-coming team -- you gotta constantly keep pushing and just finding the right balance."
A great deal of the team's success rides on gangly 6-foot-3 freshman Freddie Zaretsky, who holds down the team's first singles spot. His ascension to the team's top individual spot allowed other talented players like senior Zach Lipson and sophomore Mike Abelev to slide down and provide depth at the second and third singles spots, respectively.
Before being upset by Paramus' Ryan Lugtu in Saturday's county tournament, Zaretsky had lost only two matches all season, both to high quality opponents.
Markman said he loves the young lefty's style of play.
"He plays an extremely aggressive style where he’s always looking to take advantage of the point, hit winners," said Markman, who described Zaretsky as a very powerful player. "He looks for a short ball and just tries to capitalize and dominate. And usually if he wins or loses it’s on his terms, and I like that because you don’t see too many players like that anymore. He’s kind of an old school player."
The Cutters, who opened the state tournament Friday with a dominating shutout of No. 13 seed Kearny, play host to No. 5 seed Montclair on Monday. The winner of Monday's match moves on to play what will likely be the group's top seed -- Livingston.
Markman is confident that his squad has overcome its late season slide and is primed for a solid showing in states.
"I think we’re catching our second wind at the right time," he said. "I think we’re ready to make another push."
Win or lose, the future looks bright for this young Cutters' squad that looks like a favorite to win an outright league title next year.