Blazers perform on par at regionals but fall short of expectations in county
After a 5-7 season last year, the girls' tennis team was anxious to keep their Division I berth this fall. The Blazers met their goal, finishing 7-5 with wins against division rivals Richard Montgomery and Magruder and losses only to Division I powerhouses such as Churchill, Whitman and Walter Johnson, and hoped to be in the top five of the county playoffs.
But unlucky draws where all but one player faced a top-four seed before or during the quarterfinals soon dashed their hopes. In the regional playoffs, the Blazers performed well, but were unable to pull through, losing in the round of 16.
In the county playoffs, players in the same positions from different schools play against each other (first singles, second doubles, etc...) in an elimination tournament. Based on win-loss and head-to-head records, the top four players are seeded, with each occupying one-fourth of the bracket. Each non-preliminary round victory earns one point for the player's school.
At first singles, junior Sneha Kannan was exempt from the preliminary round and won 7-5, 6-2 against a Gaithersburg opponent but was defeated 6-3, 6-0 by first-seed Elizabeth Kaufman from Churchill in the quarterfinals.
Sophomore Shilpa Kannan at second singles faced a similar fate. After earning a bye in the preliminary round, she won 6-0, 6-1 against her Seneca Valley opponent but fell 6-0, 6-1 to Blake's Sarah Monsheimer, seeded third in the category.
Despite an impressive season record of 8-3, third singles senior co-captain Bonnie Ding faced an unusually difficult draw, according to Coach David Ngbea. After winning by default in the preliminary round, Ding played the second-seed, Churchill's Stephanie Mandir, in her first game and lost 6-0, 7-6 (7-3).
At fourth singles, senior co-captain Priyanka Gokhale was Blair's only seed, positioned at fourth, and consequently was the only Blazer with favorable draws in the early rounds. Gokhale earned a bye in the preliminary round and won against Northwood and Paint Branch 6-0, 6-0 in the round of 16 and quarterfinals, respectively. In the semifinals, she met the first seed, Walter Johnson's Alysia Rodgers and lost 6-1, 6-1.
The first doubles team of sophomore Deepa Chelleppa and senior co-captain Jasleen Salwan unexpectedly withdrew at the last moment. As a result, they did not earn any points for Blair.
Second doubles players sophomores Elissa Shaiu and Tiffany Chang won by default in round of 16, but fell against the fourth-seeded Whitman team in a 6-1, 6-2 match during the quarterfinals. Similarly, at third doubles, sophomores Sarah Tran and Yevgeniya Frankevych won against Sherwood 6-3, 6-1, but lost to second seed Walter Johnson 6-2, 6-0, in the quarterfinals.
In total, Blair gained six points in the county playoffs, which placed the team at a tie with Wootton for seventh place – lower than Ngbea's expected fifth place.
In the regional playoffs, schools can bid up to one singles player and two doubles teams to play to qualify for state playoffs. The top three singles and doubles teams move on to the state level in the spring. Thus, Ngbea chose to bid his four singles players as doubles and did not bid a singles player. He reasoned that by placing his stronger players together, Blair would have a more realistic chance of winning.
The Kannan sisters, Sneha and Shilpa, played together and won by default against Quince Orchard but lost to Churchill 6-4, 6-2 in the round of 16. Ding and Gokhale also played doubles and beat Sherwood 6-1, 7-5, but lost to Northwest, 7-6(7), 6-2.
Although the Kannans did not practice regularly as doubles during the season, they were fairly comfortable playing together in regionals. "It wasn't awkward. We played really well together," Sneha Kannan said.
Overall, Ngbea was pleased with the Blazers' performance throughout the season. It was a difficult season because many players were young and inexperienced, he said. But the team will be graduating four seniors, which leaves them vulnerable for the coming year's season. "I don't know if we're going to be able to survive in Division I next year," Ngbea said.
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