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State crown caps Celenza's tennis career

When teams win championships, especially state titles, what is often forgotten is how difficult it is at times just to earn a spot in the lineup.

When teams win championships, especially state titles, what is often forgotten is how difficult it is at times just to earn a spot in the lineup.

Haddonfield senior tennis player Anthony Celenza doesn't take competing for granted.

He fought his way up the competitive playing ladder during his years at Haddonfield, when many athletes would have asked off.

Celenza had to travel a long way just to make the team. As a freshman, he competed in Haddonfield's intramural league, which meant he didn't have to make a full-time commitment, participating about once or twice a week.

He earned a spot on the junior varsity as a sophomore, playing second doubles. Then last year, he was on the No. 3 varsity doubles team. Only two doubles teams compete in matches, but Celenza did get some varsity time.

This season, when he and junior Max Prescott moved up to second doubles, Celenza had his long-awaited spot.

Celenza eventually helped the team win the Group 2 state title for the first time, although the Bulldogs have captured eight Group 1 state crowns under veteran coach Jeff Holman, who has 934 career wins.

"He wasn't a kid who came to Haddonfield with a lot of tennis lessons or experience," Holman said. "But he worked hard, got better each year, grew with the program, and enjoyed a great senior season."

Celenza went 26-4, and his most memorable wins came the day Haddonfield won the state title. The Bulldogs first beat Pascack Hills, 3-2, in a state semifinal and then Bernards, 3-2, in the final. In both matches, Celenza and Prescott won at No. 2 doubles.

"Winning the state title was just an unbelievable experience," Celenza said.

Celenza was the only senior starter for Haddonfield. While the rest of the team appears poised to defend the title next year, this was it for Celenza.

For somebody who wasn't sure he would earn a starting spot, to ending with a state title, well, Celenza couldn't have written a better script to end his athletic career.

"Every time I see my teammates in school or outside of school, I say, 'You know, we are state champs,' " Celenza said. "It's been a great experience."

Celenza was ecstatic to take part in the traditional fire truck ride through town that state champions receive.

"I was on the front seat," he said.

Celenza won't pursue sports in college, which makes the title more memorable. He will attend Louisiana state, and hopes to become a physical therapist.

Making the championship even more special was that tennis provided a temporary respite for the difficult situation with which Celenza and his family are dealing. His mother, Elaine, has bone cancer.

"Sometimes when you are feeling troubled around the house, it's great to go out and play tennis and get things off my mind," Celenza said. "I always text her after a tennis tournament and tell her how we did. We have a strong relationship."

Celenza abandoned texting and picked up the phone after winning the state championship.

"I called her and told her, 'Mom, I am a state champion,' " he said.

His mother then told him how proud she was of his accomplishment.

Whether he won a state championship or not, Celenza showed great fortitude to compete this year. His family, teammates, and Holman knew he was a champion even before the state final. Now everyone else does, too.