Shoemaker’s experience shows

Hun freshman one of five Raider flights to advance to final

By: Justin Feil
   Kara Shoemaker seems like a freshman at times even if she doesn’t play like one.
   The Hun School third singles player was playing aimlessly with her frozen breath in the early morning before the start of the Prep A state tournament Sunday.
   Once the quarterfinal and semifinal matches began, the second seed was all business in disposing of both of her opponents. Doing so enabled her to join the rest of the defending co-champion Raider players for a spot in Wednesday’s finals in which they will oppose top-seeded Lawrenceville in all five flights at Pingry.
   In the Prep B state tournament that will also conclude at Pingry on Wednesday, Stuart Country Day has Kelsey Semrod at first singles and Clare Wiles at second singles. Like Shoemaker, they are trying to capture a title.
   "I have a lot of confidence in her," said Hun head coach Joan Nuse, whose team did not win a match in a regular-season loss against the Big Red. "Because of that, I sometimes neglect her and concentrate on other people’s matches. I feel bad. She is pretty mature for her age. I definitely treat her like a veteran."
   Shoemaker is one of three freshmen in Hun’s lineup and undoubtedly one of the most tournament-tested. It’s easy to understand why she appears comfortable in the biggest arenas, as she was in wrapping up a Mercer County Tournament gold medal. She’s been playing competitive United States Tennis Association-sanctioned tournaments since she was 10. The pressure and accompanying nerves were hard to handle then.
   "It gets easier as you play more," Shoemaker said. "Then it’s just another tournament, not like the end of the world. I remember my first match. I was shaking basically the entire time. Now there’s no shaking. I don’t really get nervous now."
   It’s just one benefit she can take from years of USTA tournaments. She is starting to see the payoff of those tournaments when she gets into big high school tournaments like the MCT and the Prep A tournament.
   "I think it’s good practice," said Shoemaker, who moved from Sparta to Princeton two years ago. "You play a lot of different people. You see a variety of playing styles. Then when you play a tough match, you know more what to do."
   As for Wednesday, she added, "I’m just trying to focus on not thinking too much about it and just relaxing and playing as well as I can and hope for the best."
   So far, her best has been pretty amazing. Shoemaker’s only loss this season came at the hands of Lawrenceville’s Alison Rooney. No one else has even come close, as they are the only two sets she has lost this season, success that might seem surprising for a freshman in the singles lineup.
   "Even though she’s a freshman, she has so much tournament experience so it isn’t surprising," Nuse said. "I watched her play last year in middle school out there playing No. 1 against a bunch of boys and holding her own. I have been pleased to see her game mature. She’s adding some nuances. She actually goes to net now sometimes."
   Shoemaker was on the Hun Middle School team for one year, and the unique experience helped shape her into a stronger player. The co-ed team made things harder at the top for her.
   "Last year, I played basically all guys," Shoemaker said. "I played two girls. It’s a little different. I think it was good. Boys play different than girls. It was good to experience that."
   Back playing against girls again, Shoemaker’s development and improvement has continued this season, thanks in part to her teammates and the regular practice she gets with them. She’s seen the benefits in her matches.
   "I think I’ve gotten more consistent over this season," Shoemaker said. "With playing every day, practicing every day, you start to realize what you’re doing wrong during matches and you can work on it and improve in practice and do it better in the next match."
   All the Raiders have improved through the season, as witnessed by Sunday’s success. The singles players, Caitie Druker and Hillary Drewry, upheld their No. 2 seeds while the doubles teams of Anna Wiinberg and Ali Deitchman at first doubles and Rachel Greene and Lauren Latella at second doubles both advanced to the finals as No. 3 seeds.
   "I think they played pretty well," Nuse said. "It’s been such a weird week with weather, it was hard, but they played well. Hillary’s second match of the day was a player from Oak Knoll who was a strong player and she played well. Caitie played well all day. Kara played much better at Lawrenceville this time. She played well.
   "The doubles, they like to make things interesting. They manage to pull things out. First doubles had a three-setter against Peddie. Second doubles beat the second seed, which was Kent Place, 6-4, 6-4. They’ve been playing really well since they played Stuart the other day."
   The Raiders are hoping they can peak just in time to capture another state championship. It is a challenge for which they hope past experience has prepared them.
   "It’s really exciting the whole team got through," Shoemaker said. "We’re still together. It’s kind of like counties. This time, we’re all playing Lawrenceville again. It’s like another Lawrenceville match. Counties was a little different because we were all playing other teams."
   Stuart knows the difficulty of defending at the state level. The Tartans are in third place behind Gill St. Bernards and Ranney. But with Semrod and Wiles, Stuart has two finalists who could score points Wednesday.
   "Today was a surprise for our team," said Stuart head coach Dede Webster. "I thought we would do better in the doubles. It was a mixed bag. Kelsey’s was a thrilling, wonderful victory. It’s the kind a coach remembers long after the season is done. I was thrilled for her. They both played very, very well. It came down to 7-5 in the tiebreaker. It was a phenomenal match."