PRINCETON: Little Tigers singles still strong

Sophomore pair getting comfortable after move up ladder

By Justin Feil, Assistant Sports Editor
   Katelyn Hojeibane and Zhenia Dementyev both have new opportunities and challenges with the Princeton High School girls tennis team, and they are trying to make the most of them.
   On the eve of the Mercer County Tournament, the Little Tigers lost their unbeaten second-singles freshman Chenchen Wang for the rest of the season to a serious knee injury.
   ”She contributed a lot to the team while she was able to play,” said PHS head coach Sarah Hibbert. “We are looking forward to her coming back next year. The good news is she has three years ahead of her, and hopefully she’ll come back stronger than ever.”
   In the meantime, a pair of sophomores is taking on new challenges as the Little Tigers had to slide up their lineup. Hojeibane has moved up from third singles to second singles, while Dementyev has moved into the varsity lineup at third singles to replace Hojeibane.
   ”Chenchen has an amazing record so it’s hard to fill her spot and play up to her level,” Hojeibane said. “I think I’m handling it pretty well. The coaches are super supportive and they’re trying to tell me things to do to help raise my level.”
   While Hojeibane had been playing in the singles lineup, Dementyev is adjusting to playing in it regularly. Prior to Wang’s injury, she had only substituted sporadically for a player who was out for the day while serving as the top player for the junior varsity.
   ”It’s definitely different because those matches I would play when I was filling in the lineup, there was no pressure,” Dementyev said. “Now that I’m in the official lineup, I have to be twice as focused and prepared and ready to bring my A game.”
   The pair was thrown into their new spots in a critical time, but has filled in seamlessly. They helped the Little Tigers finish third at the MCT, then won both of the first state tournament matches of their lives as top-seeded PHS stopped Middletown North last Thursday and then Allentown in the quarterfinals, both by 5-0 scores.
   ”My first county match was actually pretty tough for me and I lost that,” Dementyev said. “But it was a really close match. Even though I lost, it gave me confidence that I could do this.
   ”When we started playing again, I had quite a few easy wins, so I’m gaining confidence. In the semifinals and the finals, hopefully I’ll be able to represent my team proudly.”
   After stopping Hightstown, 5-0, Wednesday in a regular-season matchup, PHS was scheduled to take on Freehold Borough in the Central Jersey Group III semifinals Thursday with the finals slated for Monday against the winner of No. 2 Wall and No. 6 Hopewell Valley.
   ”For me, it’s my first state tournament,” Dementyev said. “It is for everyone on the team except Maddie Cahill. Even though we lost Chenchen, we still think we have a pretty good chance to show our A game.
   ”We have really great captains this year and they’re really motivating us to relax,” she added. “We’re playing tennis because we love it. The goal is to win, but it’s important to have fun and remember why we play tennis.”
   Cahill-Sanidas and Rory Lewis won at first doubles and Lindsay Eberhart and Allison Hubert won at second doubles for the Little Tigers, who also got a win from Christina Rosca at first singles to go with wins from Hojeibane and Dementyev.
   ”The girls played well,” Hibbert said. “They’re getting more confident. Hopefully they can keep playing that way.”
   In CJ IV, top-seeded West Windsor-Plainsboro South and fourth-seeded West Windsor-Plainsboro North were scheduled to play each other Thursday in the semifinals. Second-seeded Montgomery was scheduled to play in the other CJ IV semifinal match with the final scheduled for Monday.
   Dementyev and Hojeibane were able to move up significantly from last year in the PHS lineup due to strong offseasons. They both trained with the idea that there would be plenty of spots open after six seniors graduated from last year’s lineup. Hojeibane moved from second doubles on junior varsity to third singles this year and Dementyev was just on the outside of the lineup after playing JV third doubles last year.
   ”I knew I had to practice a lot,” said Hojeibane, who regularly hit with her father in the offseason on top of training sessions with a coach. “I focused on my goal and my goal was to be a singles player. I’m really glad that I got my goal.
   ”If I was the same player I was last year, I wouldn’t be able to make this singles lineup, especially with everyone getting so much better and these freshmen,” she said. “If I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t be where I am now. I’ve definitely progressed nicely.”
   Dementyev is equally happy with her development since freshman year. She is happy that she has the chance to show off her singles game that she honed over the summer with coach Jay Pinho of Nassau Racquet Club.
   ”I worked so hard,” she said. “I played in more tournaments outside of school and took more lessons and pushed myself a lot.
   ”I had a really good experience last year playing doubles, but when I play USTA tournaments, I play singles. When I go to lessons, they teach us singles strategies, so I feel like I know the singles game a lot better. I feel more confident playing singles.”
   Dementyev has been able to step into the singles lineup mid-season and perform well for the Little Tigers, who are doing their best to play for their injured teammate.
   ”I made such a big leap between last year and this year,” Dementyev said. “I think hopefully I’ll keep progressing this way. I’m really happy how it’s going and I’m proud of myself and everything that happened over this time. I feel really comfortable where I am right now.”
   It wasn’t always that way. She didn’t have much warning before being inserted into the lineup for the MCT.
   ”I was expecting to go to school and do my normal thing,” Dementyev said. “Two days before, I found out I’d have to miss school and go and represent my school. I was nervous.”
   Hojeibane was expecting to play third singles at MCT, but had to quickly adjust to playing second singles. She was able to switch on the fly to win her first-round match, and she’s gained confidence in every match since then.
   ”I’ve increased my level of play to the next level,” Hojeibane said. “When I was playing third singles, I knew I could be a little more lenient. I knew I was better than some of the players. It was OK to double fault every once in a while. In second singles, I knew I couldn’t do that at all. I had to step up my game like that.
   ”In third singles, it was OK if I was maybe not 100 percent focused. In second singles, the second I’m not focused or caught off guard, I’ll lose. They’ll take that and use it to beat me.”
   Hojeibane doesn’t want that to happen. She was getting accustomed to winning plenty at third singles and she’s doing her best to be just as effective at second singles. It has helped that the team has stayed positive after the injury to Wang that may require surgery.
   ”It’s been great having them,” Hojeibane said. “They’re always supportive. Every time before a match, they know I get nervous. They support me. Zhenia and I stick together through this. We weren’t expecting this. We just tell each other, we can do this. Usually that helps us have more confidence in our shots.”
   And as they advance into the semifinals of the state sectionals, the Little Tigers feel fortunate to have such depth to be able to maintain their sparkling record in the face of some adversity.
   ”I know I’m pretty confident because our first singles player is really solid and I know our team can pretty much always count on her,” Hojeibane said of Rosca, the freshman who advanced the fourth round of the state singles tournament last weekend. “First doubles has been very consistent. They’re undefeated. I know it’s important to win my match in case one of them slips up, but I think the team as a whole, if were playing our best and trying our hardest, we can do well. We’re still a good team with Chenchen being gone. Zhenia is a great player and I’ve stepped up to second singles.”