Ledyard – The season began with a tragedy. Ledyard High School boys’ tennis coach Nik Pellegrino died in a car accident in January at the age of 28.
It is fitting then that the ensuing triumph quite literally bears his name, as the Colonels’ uniform shirts this season have the name “Pellegrino” emblazoned on the back.
Ledyard, with Monday’s 6-1 victory over Woodstock Academy, is 5-0 overall, 4-0 in the Eastern Connecticut Conference Division II standings and a win away from capturing the division title.
Overseeing things is first-year head coach Ding Ding, who was a volunteer assistant last season under Pellegrino. Her two sons, junior Ronan Allison and freshman Malloch Allison, play for the Colonels, who have a comfort level with Ding as a familiar face.
“There was not a single person on the team that didn’t like coach Nik. Everyone loved him,” Ronan Allison said. ‘He was such a good person and such a great coach. … He would always tell everyone’ Play point for point, move your feet and bend your knees. ‘ I still tell that to myself now. (To win the ECC in his honor), that would be awesome. “
In Monday’s match, things were a bit scrambled for Ledyard, which competed without No. 1 singles player Julian Mileski, an ECC singles semifinalist a year ago, due to illness. Instead, Ronan Allison stepped in at No. 1 singles.
Allison, a lefty who usually plays No. 4 singles or No. 1 doubles along with Ben Fieldsend – that duo reached the ECC doubles final last year – defeated Woodstock’s Evan Haskins 6-0, 7-5. The Colonels also got singles victories from Matt Bourguignon, Fieldsend and Damion DePaul. Sebastian Fieldsend and Reese Yaras won at No. 1 doubles and Dominic Thomas and Clark Ysewyn took no. 3 doubles.
Allison cruised to the first-set win and led 4-0 in the second set before Haskins came back to tie the match 5-5. Allison broke Haskins in the next game, whipping a shot to the right of his opponent, something that seemed to fuel him for the final game.
“I just knew it would be more challenging,” Allison said of playing at No. 1. “I think it made me play better. That (shot to go ahead 6-5) definitely helped me get back in control of my brain, to be honest. I just started talking to myself trying to get focused again.”
Ding, who holds a master’s degree in chemistry, employed as a scientist at Pfizer, said it was her proudest moment that her son approved of her taking over as Ledyard’s head coach.
“I might not do it if he didn’t want me to do it,” she said. “Last year, because I was so involved, Ronan came home and said, ‘Everybody says you should be the assistant coach.’ That made me so happy. I thought maybe (this year) I could. “
With Pellegrino’s death, everything changed.
“I definitely didn’t want them to be without a coach and they know me already,” Ding said. “I love my team. Everybody is so nice. We support each other a lot. We have different levels and tennis skills, but everybody supports one another. I’m so proud of that.”
Ding said Mileski also serves as a coach on the court, giving his fellow teammates a few tips and tricks.
Also a state champion swimmer, Mileski – most days – leads the way for the Colonels. At most home matches, Pellegrino’s mom Ebba is in attendance, too, watching the team that Nik so loved coaching.
Said Ding: “(Pellegrino) was such a nice man. We want to do our best to remember and honor him.”