PRINCETON: Panthers capture Prep B tennis title

By Justin Feil, Assistant Sports Editor
   With flight wins from Maria Martinovic and Emily Dyckman, and a little help from Montclair Kimberley, the Princeton Day School girls tennis team won its second straight Prep B state championship Thursday.
   Martinovic is new to the Panthers this year, but not new to winning state titles. She has won the last two Prep A second singles crowns while playing for Lawrenceville School, and she repeated the feat in her first year with PDS at the Prep B level.
   ”I was so focused for the final match,” said Martinovic. “I remember I had a close match in second match on the first day. It was a three-setter. I was losing focus. I somehow made it through and I told myself, you have to win the final match. I had to keep my focus which was good.”
   Dyckman had been a part of last year’s Prep B title at third singles, but she lost in the flight championship. On Thursday, she was able to win her third singles flight and help the Panthers to the team win.
   ”It was nice to win and feel like I contributed more,” said the Princeton resident. “It made winning more special for me.”
   Dyckman was a straight sets winner over Stephanie Fuentes of Gill St. Bernards, the runner-up in the tournament. Martinovic also defeated a Gill player, Sharon Jin. PDS’ Renee Karchere-Sun fell to Gill’s Krishna Patel in the first singles final, while Hope Boosan and Touria Salvati lost the second doubles final to MKA’s Nkita Israni and Caroline Frieso.
   ”I think the mental toughness story of the tournament was Hope Boosan, who after Sunday’s Day 1 had some leg problems and wasn’t sure she could play,” said PDS head coach Ed Tseng. “Up until (Thursday) morning, I wasn’t sure she could play. She toughed it out, brought her foam roller and toughed it out and played well. It could have gone either way. Those two, our second doubles team, also peaked nicely toward the end.”
   Gill could have tied PDS for the team title with a win at first singles, but MKA also won the first doubles flight over Gill. Tseng kept an eye on both doubles matches and was happy to see the Panthers come away with the title outright.
   ”It was huge because it’s always nice to have a title and show you how hard you’ve worked,” he said. “It’s great for the girls. Two of them won individuals, but I think they really enjoyed it was a team effort. The team title was more important than the individual stuff.”
   With PDS winning by a single point, every flight was important, and it was critical that four of the flights reached the finals, while Charlotte Zaininger and Davika Kumar made the semifinals at first doubles.
   ”It feels great,” Martinovic said. “I think we all worked really hard to get there I think all throughout the whole tournament.”
   Though Martinovic hadn’t played her Gill opponent and didn’t know what to expect from their toughest challengers for the team title, her past finals experience paid dividends in the big moment.
   ”I feel like almost at home,” said Martinovic, a Ewing resident. “I know from playing tournaments outside of school, there’s so much more pressure. I like for high school tennis how your teammates can cheer you on when you’re not doing so well. It’s a really good atmosphere.”
   Added Dyckman: “We were all pretty nervous. All our singles had to play Gill. They’re a tough team and had a good season. We all played well. That was nerve-wracking. They all could have gone either way.”
   Dyckman’s experience was important as well. She played doubles as a freshman, but moved up to the singles lineup last year. She came into her third state tournament hoping for another championship.
   ”I know walking in, I’ve been on the team the longest, along with Hope,” she said. “You know the game and what to expect. It gives you a little more experience to know what to expect walking in.
   ”Last year was my first time playing singles. I played it entire season. I focused on closing out matches. That was a tough loss for me last year. I worked to close out tight matches.”
   It paid off in the end. When teams want to be at their best, PDS was.
   ”I think we can finally see what kind of team we are,” Martinovic said. “In a few early matches, we didn’t have a sense of how good we are. We had a new freshman, Touria, and were feeling out the matches. Emily played doubles one match and singles the next time.”
   By the end of the season in which they went 9-3 in dual matches, the Panthers were comfortable with their flights and roles. They were able to work together to defend their state title.
   ”Going into the final day tied, there were questions how many do we need to win,” Tseng said. “There was definitely a little bit of anxiety and curiosity, but in sports, there’s so many factors so you don’t know how it’s truly going to play out. After seeing us pull it out this year, hopefully the players see that anything is possible.”
   Said Dyckman: “It was definitely tough. Everyone contributed so much. We were training hard for this. When we didn’t win MCTs, we focused on trying to win this. All our work paid off. We were pretty happy with our results for the season.”
   The Panthers graduate only Zaininger from their top seven, and the expectations will be as high as ever for a third straight Prep B crown.
   ”It’ll be easier next year,” Martinovic said of the team coming together. “We’re closer than before and we’ve improved so much. So I think next year we’ll be better.”