By Justin Feil, Assistant Sports Editor
Despite wholesale changes in its lineup, the Princeton High School girls tennis team opened their season with a win.
The Little Tigers swept the bottom four spots in a 4-1 win over Robbinsville on Tuesday. Brinda Suppiah won at second singles, Caroline Tan won at third singles, Rachel Kleiman and Nikhita Salgame were winners at first doubles and Adriana Todorov and Alina Zhao won at second doubles.
“They’re working hard,” said PHS head coach Sarah Hibbert. “They all had good matches today. They had to step up and play a position up. It was a hot day and they had to play through it and play hard to pull out a victory for us.”
Stepping up has to be a theme for this year. The Little Tigers lost their entire singles lineup from a year ago when they won the Mercer County Tournament and reached the Group III state final, and only Salgame is playing in the same doubles spot as a year ago, but with a new partner.
“We have a lot of change over,” Hibbert said. “Some things were more cut and dry than others. Everything was pretty close.”
The biggest loss to the Little Tigers is Chris Rosca, the former state champion who elected not to play this season.
“She really did want a chance to play, but there’s a lot of tournaments going on that she needs to play,” Hibbert said. “If she plays well, she’d be missing some Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays. She didn’t think that would be fair to the team to be away so much. We’ll all miss her a lot.
“It impacts the team’s level greatly, but they’re all hard workers. We have a lot of depth and they’re all committed to working hard. We are hoping to be able to count on our doubles and get singles wins where we can. Our singles players have started strong. We’re not the same team without Chris playing, but the girls are all going to work really hard to best season they can.”
Jumping to first singles this year will be Gillian Samios. The senior was No. 4 on the Little Tigers’ ladder last year, and she spent the season playing second doubles. Her former partner at second doubles, Elise Gerdes, will be second singles, but played up at first singles in the season opener with Samios out sick. Samios did see some time at third singles last year when Rosca was away, but moving all the way to No. 1 will be an adjustment. Suppiah will be third singles when the lineup is complete, and the junior was on JV last year.
“It’s still a big jump,” Hibbert said. “Brinda went from out of the varsity lineup to third singles. Elise went from second doubles to second singles.”
The doubles, too, will have a completely new look. While Salgame is back at first doubles, she will now be paired with Kleiman this year. The second doubles is not set in stone.
“We’re still deciding on our second doubles team,” Hibbert said. “I have two teams and we’re kind of back and forth onto which team will take the majority of the season. We’re doing a challenge match (Wednesday) and hopefully that’ll decide it.
“Second doubles is either Alina Zhao and Maggie Herring, or Adriana Todorov and Caroline Tan. Adriana and Carolina are freshmen who are good, and Alina and Maggie have been partners the past couple years. It’ll be some combination of those four people.”
Any way that it turns out, the Little Tigers are confident that they have the strength to be plenty competitive this season. While there will be new contributors and players in different spots everywhere in the lineup, there is a promising make-up to the team.
“We are a very senior team again,” Hibbert said. “Gillian, Nikhita, Rachel and Alina are all seniors. It’s a couple years of lots of turnover. They’ve all worked hard for their chance. Because we did have so much young talent, these girls have been right on the periphery. A lot of them have worked hard and they’re all going to hopefully step up and take the opportunity and make the most of it.”
Except for their freshmen, none of the PHS players is coming into varsity play cold. They have all had the chance to see varsity time.
“Brinda, Rachel, Alina and Maggie — they all played varsity matches last year, but not full-time,” Hibbert said. “They played five or six matches. We knew we were going to be losing a lot, so we wanted to get them in the mix and get them some experience for that reason. When you lose people, you need to have people prepared for the jump to varsity.”
They also gained some match experience at the JV level, where teams play doubles against each other. It doesn’t happen every match, but Princeton has tried to find as much playing time as possible for its up-and-coming players.
“Against good teams, like North, South, PDS and Hopewell — the best competition — we try to give them a shot,” Hibbert said. “On strong teams, you’re hoping this will be the future of your team.”
The Little Tigers will be looking to use all the experience they have gained through the years. They will again be playing in one of the top counties in the state. The Mercer County Tournament comes up at the end of the month, and the Little Tigers again will be looking for another strong showing as defending champion.
“With Claudia (Siniakowicz) going back to (West Windsor-Plainsboro) South and with Brianna (Shvets of Hopewell) and Chris leaving our teams, it makes it a little tougher on us,” Hibbert said. “It depends on who shows up to play best on any given day. Obviously the girls are hungry and committed to having as strong as season as possible. We’ll see what they can do.”
By Justin Feil, Assistant Sports Editor