“1-2-Raiders!” - A Senior Spotlight on the Girls’ Varsity Tennis Co-Captains
For senior athletes, the last match, race, or game of a season is always an emotional time. Tears are shed on behalf of the team. Coaches mourn the loss of some of their most valuable players—players they’ve spent nearly four years mentoring and guiding in their sport. Players hold each other tightly as they bask in the glory of a last cheer, the last hoorah they’ll ever get in their high school career. It’s a bittersweet day, a bittersweet night, and the idea of the next match excites them in the back of their minds—until it hits them:
There is no next match.
The Girls’ Varsity Tennis Team, headed by Coach Valerie Martin, officially wrapped up their undefeated 2023-2024 season with a 5-0 win against Golda Och Academy on October 17, 2023, winning the division. On top of being undefeated, the team has experienced its fair share of recent accomplishments. At the Essex County Tournament, for instance, the girls reached the semi-finals—an accomplishment that has not been made in years.
While some players may have started looking to the future into next year’s impending season, other players have lost that luxury. It’s no longer an option for senior co-captains Rebecca “Becky” Caporaso and Marina Calleo. For now, what they can do is look back.
“My last match as a senior, I don’t know what you’re supposed to expect, and I don’t know what I expected, but it just felt very anticlimactic,” Caporaso said. “I felt so ready, like ‘Hey, let’s go! We’ve got another match tomorrow,’ and it’s like, ‘No, we don’t’.”
Caporaso has been on Varsity since her freshman year. For all four years, she has played as a singles player and has retained captaincy since junior year. Although she wasn’t always captain, Caporaso said, “I always felt like I was one.”
She first started playing the game as a first grader at the Parks & Recreation center until she joined a clinic in fourth grade. She started working with a private coach in seventh grade, and still works with one today. However, tennis was not always her primary sport.
Dance—ballet, tap, jazz, and ballroom—was the constant in her life until she was in eighth grade. When the time came, it appeared that tennis was her calling.
“It just really clicked,” she said. “When it came down to it in middle school, I felt very passionate about tennis—and about dance—but I picked tennis because I knew that I wanted to play for the high school.”
Calleo, on the other hand, has been on the team since her junior year. In her first season, she was a first doubles player. This season, she was a second doubles player and selected to be co-captain alongside Caporaso.
Like Caporaso, Calleo, too, has participated in her fair share of activities, and, like Caporaso, Calleo found tennis to be the most enthralling. “When I was younger, I played tennis for a little while, but then, I stopped and did a couple of other different things,” Calleo said. “I did skiing, karate, crew, gymnastics—I was a part of everything—but it all circled back to tennis.”
At first, captaincy felt less natural to Calleo than it did to Caporaso. “It was different because I wanted to make sure I was leading and setting an example for [the team],” she said. “I wanted to talk with them and assure them that I would be there for them if they ever needed anything. Sometimes, certain girls would go through certain struggles, and I would always be there to talk to them about it to make sure our team was happy and able to function.”
The two did not come together just because of tennis. While tennis was definitely a bonding factor for them, Calleo and Caporaso go years back, all the way to the third grade. From singing together at the back of the bus, to calming each other down in times of panic and anxiety, the girls have had each other’s backs for years, and this relationship has only strengthened since they became co-captains.
“It was really special to me that I got picked as captain this year because Becky and I are really close friends,” Calleo said. “Not only was she a co-captain, but she was my best friend. Having that—having someone you know really well as the other captain—helped to keep me going and motivated, and inspire everyone else to keep pushing.”
“She is the bestest friend anyone could ask for,” Caporaso said, commenting on her relationship with Calleo. “She was like a rock to me, and she still is. Honestly, thank God for her. She’d calm me down, I’d rile her up; it balances out. She was—besides my parents and friends—my biggest supporter, and she is the one person, I could say, who went through it all with me. She was one of the people that did see me at some of my lowest, and I’m so grateful she stuck it out with me.”
The girls have worked together to ensure the team’s success as leaders, friends, and individual players. Together, they worked to coordinate multiple events, such as the Serve-a-Thon, a fundraiser dedicated to raising money for breast cancer awareness for the Nutley Thriving Survivors.
They also agreed that the Essex County Tournament was a highlight of the season for themselves and the team as a whole. They made it to the semi-finals—an unexpected accomplishment on all parts.
“We beat [West Orange] a school we weren’t supposed to, and that was pretty cool, but also super tiring,” Caporaso said. “We were all, like, passed out, but it was really funny because we were all like, ‘Oh shoot, we won? We weren’t supposed to win. We have work later, we can’t do this!’. But we were really excited, and we were proud to have gotten that far.”
A school in particular that brought an interesting controversy to the girls team was West Essex. The team went head-to-head with West Essex’s Girls’ Varsity Tennis Team not once, but three times throughout the season; yet, that wasn’t the part that attracted public attention. Rather, it was the fact that the matches were more of a family affair, with Coach Martin’s son, Jeffrey Martin, coaching West Essex.
These matches were not the best for the girls. The Nutley team lost the three matches, with Caporaso winning her personal match against them at the Essex County Tournament on September 19.
“The thing that sticks out to me about that is, the first match we played against them, I lost,” she said. “They were the team we played during the county tournament, and I was the only one to win. I felt very proud of myself because. . . I don’t want to say I wanted revenge, but I was very happy with that do-over. I was very happy to show off what my capabilities were, and I think that that match was a good testament to that.”
“I think we let it get to our head that we were versing a team that was two divisions higher than us,” Calleo said, voicing her reflections on these matches. “I think we just automatically assumed that we weren’t gonna win, so we didn't push hard enough to win those matches. I think it was also harder because Coach desperately wanted to win against her son to show him up. There was a lot of pressure for us to win, so I think we just let that pressure get the best of us.”
Overall, the team has had its fair share of ups and downs, tough matches and tough losses. What shines, though, is the girls’ perseverance, one that is highlighted by the bond shared between them.
“We had a very positive energy throughout the whole season,” Caporaso said. “Even when we felt a little low, we told ourselves, ‘We got this. We got this in the bag.’. We had the confidence, we were strutting, we just knew what we had to do, and we did it. I think that’s really fantastic.”
Not once was there a match that didn't end in the girls hugging each other, whether they ended up with a win or suffering from a loss. The team is small, yes, but the love they have for each other is nothing short of extraordinary.
Caporaso’s mother, Chris Caporaso, said, “This year’s team had all returning players from last year, which made them more unified. They know their strengths and weaknesses and support each other on and off the courts.”
This support from their team is something that both Caporaso and Calleo will miss as they move on. “I didn't realize how much the sport would impact my life until I tried out for the team,” Calleo said. “We all really love each other and have supported each other through everything. We’re all really close with one another. I’m gonna miss all these girls when I graduate.”
Caporaso even got a little teary-eyed as she talked about her teammates in the season. “I am just so proud of everyone,” she said. “We had a goal, we set out to do it, and we did it. We won last year, but we tied, and we were like, ‘No, we wanna win, so we’re gonna win’. Winning undefeated, it was just, it was so… I cannot express how proud I am of my team. I cannot express how good it felt to give everyone hugs and cheer for them, especially when matches were tough.”
The motivation levels the two had could not have been achieved if it weren’t for the notable amount of support this past season. Both Calleo and Caporaso discussed a larger turnout in the audience from their shared friend groups. Seniors Kaya Guven, Ilhan Ilhan, and Sasha Wanko were named as a mere few who showed up the most, but none of them will ever be able to fully understand how much their presences meant to the co-captains.
Guven, a setter for the Boys’ Volleyball team who went to at least three of the girls’ games and many of their practices, said, “The energy of the team was always great. They would always gather and do Nutley cheers. I felt the team's energy every time, and it reminded me of my own team, the volleyball team. The team spirit was there.”
Caporaso has not always been open to having an audience. Rather, in earlier years, she shied away from it. “Any home game I went to, I could always look to the side and see a list of people that I never thought I would see at my games,” she said. “As a junior, I was terrified for people to watch me, because I thought I would fail. I didn't want to see disappointment—but this year, I wanted people to come, and I feel like that signified such growth for me.”
Despite her timidness, Caporaso’s family never lacked in showing their support. “Becky’s grandmother was at every practice and game,” her mother said. “She was named the team's official mascot. Her father and I attended every practice and match. We enjoyed watching and supporting all the girls.”
Caporaso’s mother acted as a support system not just for her, but for the whole team. She helped Caporaso and Calleo organize the Serve-a-Thon as well as Senior Night and other fundraising events, such as the can shake. On colder days, she’d bring hot chocolate and marshmallows to games—an act both girls agreed helped immensely.
Calleo, too, added how the added audience boosted her own morale. She said, “Seeing your friends out there and cheering you on, it really pushes you to a new level. It’s different when you have your friends there—it’s more comforting—because you know you have people that are supporting you. It’s different than not having anyone there and having to do it on your own.”
“Everyone needs to show the team more support,” Guven said. “The crowd isn’t as big as it should be; it’s what they deserve.”
Even school administrators have started paying more attention to the tennis team. Principal Denis Williams and Athletic Director Joe Piro made special appearances at the Serve-a-Thon; Williams himself has gone out of his way on numerous occasions to express his support for the Girls’ Tennis Team on social media.
Despite Caporaso and Calleo’s time on the team coming to an end, both plan on playing in college, not for their actual schools, but for recreational activities. Joining intramural sports, playing for a club—these are options the two are keeping in mind as they move forth. Caporaso has applied early decision to Lehigh University, and Calleo has noted the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to be one of her top choices.
Tennis is more than a hobby for the girls. It’s a passion, a skill, a driving force that has shaped their lives in ways they can’t even imagine. It’s a bittersweet ending, and sure, there won’t be a next match for either of them with the Nutley team; but, as Coach Martin always says, “Tennis is a life sport.” Neither of them will be leaving without the knowledge, skills, and memories they’ve gained from these experiences.
So, for one last time, “1-2-Raiders!"