Tennis, faith a good match for Donovan Catholic senior
By Rich Fisher | Contributing EditorCristina Merone is 7-0 at first singles for the Donovan Catholic tennis team this fall after winning 22 matches at the top flight during her junior season.
She is justifiably proud of those numbers, but takes just as much pride in her other roles with the Griffins – spirit leader and prayer leader.
“I am very honored to be able to lead our team in prayer before every match,” Merone said. “Praying as a team is important to all of us, especially in the sport we play. Although we are a team, we play our own matches. Praying together beforehand brings us closer as a team, as we all support one another.”
Coach Tom Connerton assured that Merone takes her role seriously. If there is a family illness on the team, or death in the family, Cristina heads up the effort to get a card delivered. Her family recently hosted a pasta party for the JV team.
“That whole family is a very, very, very strong, family-based Catholic family,” Connerton said. “Everybody’s very important to them. Cristina just lives her faith every day. It’s not going through the motions. … If something’s right and wrong, it’s right and wrong. It’s fair or not fair. Her moral compass is so on base.”
The Toms River resident has been a member of St. Joseph Parish in her hometown since kindergarten, and her entire education has been in Catholic schools.
“My faith is a huge part of my life,” Merone said. “My relationship with God continues to grow to this day. I keep God as the center of everything I do, even more so when I’m playing. My faith in God and the game helps me push myself to play harder, especially for those close matches.”
And she has taken what gifts God provided and used them to win many of those matches – along with many one-sided matches.
She’s a winner in all ways, plain and simple.
Seeing limited action as a freshman, Merone went 2-0 at third singles and 4-0 at second doubles. As a sophomore, she went 17-1 at third singles and 2-1 at second singles. Last year, she took over the top spot and went 22-5 while reaching the NJSIAA Individual State Tournament before falling to the 12th seed.
“I was proud of myself for the way I played last year because I had worked extremely hard over the summer,” she said. “However, there is always room for growing and improvement.”
Merone’s tactics are simple – play consistently and wear the other girl down. Connerton feels if an opponent is going to beat her, they better do it early.
“If somebody is just that good, it’s the only way they’re going to beat her, and that’s going to happen sometimes,” the coach said. “She’s a baseliner, but her key is really all mental. She’s really strong and she’s not gonna knock you off the court in the first five minutes, but you better knock her off the court in the first five minutes. If you get in a third set with her, she’s gonna win. She gets stronger and stronger.
“She never lets anything bother her. I can’t remember her disputing a line call in four years. With some kids it’s every day, but she’s not gonna make excuses,” Connerton said.
The reason for that, most likely, is that Merone just enjoys being on the court so much that nothing is going to spoil her good time. “I love the game, and I love making great shots,” she said.
Merone is the third Merone to play for Connerton, along with her brother, Antonio, and sister, Angelica, who now plays for Moravian College, Bethlehem, Pa. The coach notes that, despite being a captain, little sister is the quietest of the three.
“Her sister was also a captain but was really super social and outgoing,” he said. “They are the same in their strength and belief system and values and leadership qualities, but very different in personalities.”
But much of what Merone has become on the court comes from her sister.
“I do think my sister had an impact on my tennis career growing up because I looked up to her as a player and captain,” Merone said. “Now that I’m here, in the position she was in three years ago, I appreciate her constantly pushing me to be a better player and leader.”
As good as she has become, however, Merone is uncertain if she will continue playing in college.
“I am not completely against the idea,” she said. “Ultimately it depends on where I decide to go.”
Should this be her last hurrah, Merone is confident that she and her team will make it a successful climax to her career.
“I am determined to keep my record and qualify for states,” she said. “As well as winning the (Non-Public) B South championship title as a team.”
And should all this occur, it will be with Merone’s usual class and grace.
“She’s the player that young kids should be looking up to,” Connerton said. “In our day and age, everyone is looking up at the bells-and-whistles kind of kid. She’s the kind of kid you should emulate. She’s the kind of kid every coach wants to have.”