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June 08. 2013 11:29PM

State girls final tennis match gains attention for the wrong reason

MANCHESTER - The scrolling banner on the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association web site trumpets a virtue near and dear to the organization's heart: "Winning is for a day, Sportsmanship is for a lifetime."

The slogan, along with the NHIAA, took a bit of a hit this week.

It was championship week, the shining moment of the spring season, and a couple of individual tennis titles, one for girls and another for boys, were being contested on the courts at the Derryfield School.

You may have heard about the girls' match: Bow senior Sunday Swett, an exuberant and worthy player, won the title.

The problem was with how the match ended.

Swett was declared the champion after her opponent, Bishop Guertin of Nashua senior Briana Leonard, encouraged by her parents, walked off the court at the conclusion of the first set.

And then the troubles began.

Swett had rallied to win the first set by a score of 6-4 and needed one more set to clinch her first state championship in her last shot at the title.

At first, she thought Leonard had taken a bathroom break.

When it sunk in that the match was over, Swett whooped it up and headed off the court to celebrate with friends and family and collect her championship medal.

In the meantime, Leonard was back in the family's car, and her parents had begun to tell any who would listen that their daughter was leaving because she had been had been bullied and harassed. They said fans had cheered when she made mistakes, which is considered bad form in tennis, and were over the top in their encouragement for Swett.

The Leonards were also unhappy because they felt tournament officials had done nothing to rectify the situation. Their daughter had been treated unfairly in the past as well, they said, and they believed it was because they live in Massachusetts and she competes in New Hampshire as a Bishop Guertin player.

"It's a hostile environment," Tim Leonard said. "Something needs to be done."

He quickly added, and repeated a couple of times, that he didn't want to take anything away from Swett.

But the damage was done. The champion's moment was not what it could - and should - have been.

Swett got her medal and her name in the record books as the champion, and she said she wasn't going to let the circumstances bother her one bit.

"It was her choice," Swett said. "I'm not going to let it dampen my happiness."

The problems on Tuesday ran deeper than cheering from the sidelines; tensions ran high from the very beginning.

The Leonards, according to the family and officials, arrived at the tournament a little bit later than the appointed starting time or the event.

Leonard was penalized a point for being late, and, after a heated discussion, her father was told he was not going to be allowed on the premises for the match.

Swett and Leonard each won their semifinal matches and after a rest break started their championship match.

During the sixth game, while reaching and stretching for a return, Leonard slipped and fell.

Leonard had what appeared to be a testy exchange with tournament director Steve Laro, and a trainer came onto the court to check her for injuries before the match resumed.

Swett finished out that game to even the set at three games each and eventually won the first set, 6-4.

That's how the match ended.

According to an observer, Leonard's mother, Kristin, approached the fence surrounding the court and told her daughter she did not have to take this any longer and could leave if she wanted.

Leonard then walked off the court.

Soon, the parents were complaining and noting that they were also worried about their daughter's health after the fall.

"They thought the crowd was over the top, cheering for their daughter's faults and things like that," first-year Bishop Guertin coach Barry Ndinya said. "The mother felt her daughter was being harassed and the atmosphere was not good for her daughter."

Cheering at the match certainly favored Swett but did not appear to be unsportsmanlike.

"That's sports, right?" Ndinya said. "You can have the crowd cheering for you or against you. You have to deal with that . . . (Leonard) was heavily not the crowd favorite today. You have to block that out. I was trying to get her to focus on that."

Instead the focus turned to a high school girl walking away from a championship match, and no one looked particularly good in the ugly incident's wake.

The fallout from Leonard's departure was far-reaching as Internet websites and headlines picked up on it, with much of the commentary ill-informed and inflammatory, some of it critical of both finalists.

All will move on from here.

Leonard is excited about going on to Bryant University in Rhode Island and the chance to play NCAA Division I tennis there.

Swett plans to take a year off and then attend Yale and also compete in Division I.

The NHIAA, which prides itself on its promotion of sportsmanship but was unable to defuse what became a bad situation at Derryfield last week, will undoubtedly study the event to see how it can do better next time.

R. Patrick Corbin, executive director of the NHIAA, could not be reached for comment for this story Saturday morning, but he did comment on the controversy at Tuesday's match, which he attended.

"It was unfortunate for everyone," he said. "I've never seen anything like this before.

"Most people thank us when they leave our events."

alessels@unionleader.com


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