SBHS tennis loaded with optimism

By: T.J. Furman
   It doesn’t take long to figure out how Barbara Whitman feels about this year’s South Brunswick High School girls tennis squad. A conversation on the topic with the veteran coach will likely draw the words "very strong team" from her several times.
   There’s good reason for Whitman to feel that way.
   The Vikings finished third last season in the Greater Middlesex Conference Red Division behind East Brunswick and J.P. Stevens and finished fourth in the GMC tournament. The team won its last five matches in 2001 to finish 11-6.
   And none of the players graduated. In fact, it’s likely the squad has added depth with the addition of Katie O’Shea, who missed the past two seasons due to injury when she would have been the team’s top player.
   "We’re going to be a very strong team," Whitman said. "We have at least nine very strong players and four other strong ones."
   Whitman faces the enviable task of deciding her lineup from a group of talented and experienced players. As of Tuesday, she did not have a lineup in mind and said she probably would not until next week. An injury that kept one player out for two weeks has kept Whitman from getting a clear focus on all of her players’ abilities.
   "It’s a question of who’s going to play where right now," she said.
   The team’s lineup will probably consist of seven of these nine players: seniors O’Shea, Kalpana Sampale, Sandhya Prasad, Kirthika Sutharsanam, Kareisha Questal, Netra Prasad, Liha Patel and Megha Parikh, and junior Brittany McMurren.
   The only hint Whitman would give to her thinking at the moment was to say that it is "likely" O’Shea – who switched from being a left-handed player to a right-handed player after two operations on her left wrist since her sophomore year – will be one of her singles players.
   "She deserves a lot of credit for what she’s accomplished," Whitman said.
   Once the top three singles players are determined, Whitman has to figure out which of those remaining should be teamed up for the two doubles squads. The doubles teams were the Vikings’ strength last season, with the top two pairings going a combined 27-12 on the year.
   "Sometimes you’ll see teams that have difficulty fielding a second doubles team," Whitman said. "That’s not going to be the case for us.
   "It’s a good problem to have," she added about her difficulty in setting a lineup because of the team’s depth. "You want to resolve it as soon as possible. We want the lineup to be correct."
   The positive manner in which South Brunswick closed last season may have had a hand in pushing some of the players to train harder on their games during the off-season, Whitman said. But she thinks the tradition of South Brunswick tennis and the high level of competition just to make the team pushes them even more.
   "Winning is always motivating," Whitman said. "I think they’re motivated because a lot of kids are coming out for the tennis team. It’s always fun to win, but I think they would have been motivated anyway."
   Though it will not show this year, Whitman sees another factor providing a big advantage to South Brunswick in the years to come – the formation of a junior varsity girls tennis squad with its own coach and a full schedule of matches. The JV team has about 16 players, Whitman said.
   Whitman credited South Brunswick’s athletic director, Elaine McGrath, for creating the JV team and helping move the Vikings from being a very good team to an possibly being an elite team in the years to come.
   "Having that JV team now will give us another edge," Whitman explained. "I feel proud that South Brunswick has taken that step."
   When asked, Whitman wouldn’t take the next step in praising her team and proclaiming it possibly the best she’s ever coached. After all, the Vikings won several White Division titles before moving to the Red Division. She did make sure to mention, however, that "this is going to be a very strong team.
   "They can do whatever they want to do if they set their mind to it."