MONTGOMERY: Roeper is part of another tennis title

By Justin Feil, Assistant Sports Editor
Emily Roeper was the last Montgomery High School girls tennis player still playing in Sunday’s Somerset County Tournament finals.
If the senior won the third singles final, the Cougars would win their second straight county crown. If she lost, Gill-St. Bernard’s would gain the team crown.
“If I had to choose a player to be in that situation, it would be Emily,” said Montgomery head coach Raheel Saleem. “I tell her all the time, when she’s in the game and focused she has this stone cold look on her face. Nothing can break it.”
Roeper charged back from a huge first-set deficit for a 7-5, 7-5 win to allow MHS to repeat as SCT champions. The Cougars finished with 19 points to edge Gill and Watchung Hills, who tied for second place with 17 points.
“Winning this year is definitely a good feeling knowing I was giving singles a try,” Roeper said. “It was nice to have a win at singles after my big win at doubles.”
Roeper is no stranger to big moments and big wins. She and former partner Kim Szakats were the clinching point at first doubles last year in the SCT, and Roeper and Szakats had gone on to succeed in the biggest tournament of them all when they won the state doubles championship.
“I think they’re definitely different,” Roeper said. “Playing doubles, just because it’s two people doesn’t make it less of an accomplishment. I love doing it with a partner. It was also nice doing it by myself. It’s definitely two completely different feelings.”
But winning another team title was fun to share again. Roeper handled the stress of the moment well.
“Before the match our coach told us the point standings,” she said. “He told us we were ahead by one point and we needed two wins. That definitely put a bit of pressure on me. I didn’t know if all three of us could pull it out. After I saw Shannon win next to me, it definitely gave me more motivation to win. I knew we definitely had a shot.”
Shannon Lu was the only other flight winner for the Cougars, who used their depth and balance to claim the team crown. Lu, a senior as well, repeated at second singles to live up to her top seeding.
“Shannon, she’s so good, she’s so skilled,” Saleem said. “You could see she loves the game of tennis when she plays. I barely have to talk to her. She’s so sound. It’s little things, like keep moving your feet. You saw so many different kinds of players and she adjusts her game to suit it. She really is the rock, the steady piece on the team.”
Ally Yan and sister Amy Yan picked up key points by reaching the first doubles final where they lost in a tough three-set match. It was their first trip to the SCT.
“Even though they lost, they played like champions I told them,” Saleem said. “And that experience will help them the rest of the way.”
The Cougars’ new second doubles team of Isabelle Kreydin and Amanda Cheuh reached Saturday’s action. They were forced together due to an injury to Annie Yang, but did well, something that Saleem credits assistant coach Cristina Venetucci for developing in their JV years.
“In previous years, they played together,” Saleem said. “’Watching them play against a good Watchung team that won it all, they went to a super tiebreaker on Saturday and were up 4-1, but it was only the second time they played together all season. I am very optimistic how those two can play together.”
Lily Chu fought valiantly at first doubles in the quarterfinals. It’s her first at the top of the lineup.
“With Lily, she is a very gifted tennis player,” Saleem said. “We wouldn’t have come this far without her. She always plays the best competition and she always goes out there with the mindset she has to play her best and keep getting better. She has played some great tennis. Against Watchung, it doesn’t show how well she played. In seven or eight games, all but two she had in deuce. She’s right there. I don’t think I’ve seen the best tennis from her yet. It’s going to come out soon.”
Roeper is adjusting to her new spot in the lineup. She was a fixture in the doubles lineup, where she found a special talent.
“I definitely do miss it,” Roeper said. “It’s nice to have a partner with you. Having Kim, she was such a great partner. You play the points and you miss the ball and you think, where’s my partner to cover me on that one? It’s definitely different.”
Roeper has been consistent for Montgomery in her new spot. She is working to win as many points for the Cougars as a singles player as possible this season.
“I came into the season knowing I was going to play singles,” Roeper said. “I did more singles play preparation, keeping the ball in play and going for tougher shots and a lot more defense. Knowing I was going to play singles made me prepare differently just because singles is a completely different game from doubles.
“I didn’t have that many expectations for myself going in. I think I sort of surprised myself with what I could do. I knew I could get the ball back and hang in there, but I didn’t think I’d win as many matches as I have so far. I’m definitely surprised with how I’m doing.”
Some could also be surprised that the Cougars were able to defend their crown with so many changes. In addition to a late second doubles switch, the rest of the lineup except Lu was playing in new spots and none of the doubles players had been in the SCT last year, but buoyed by their singles player’s experience, they wanted to uphold the winning tradition.
“We definitely had a bit of confidence,” Roeper said. “We won it last year. That gave us confidence. We knew we had a good season. Watchung was our first loss and it was tough, but we knew we could bounce back from it. Not having our best lineup, it was tougher, but we always make do with what we have. The players we have are amazing. Most of them were seeded pretty high. We were confident. It all paid off.”
Roeper’s confidence in herself was a bit shaken by a slow start to her finals match. She trailed, 5-1, and was thinking about just dropping the next game, regrouping and trying to fight back for a three-set win. She didn’t wait though.
“My coach told me patience is the key,” she recalled. “You have to wait out each point. You can’t be too impatient and end every point. Throughout everything I was saying, wait it out. I was able to hit every ball back and wait it out. I was able to come all the way back.
“In the first set, when I came back, that gave me momentum to come back and win,” she added. “The second set, I was down 2-3. I had this other burst of energy. I didn’t want to sit through a third set. I did the same thing I did before and waited it out and was patient. I closed out the second set somehow.”
It was a slow process, but Roeper battled all the way to the joy of her teammates and coaches. Saleem, in his first year at the helm of the Cougars, was thrilled with what he was seeing.
“My girls just showed a lot of heart,” he said. “They never gave up. Emily was just absolutely amazing. She was down 5-1 the first set and won 7-5. It was one of the most thrilling matches I’ve seen in a while. It shows her level of heart and focus she put in each game.”
The Cougars will be looking for the same sort of effort as they return to conference play and gear up for the state tournament that comes up next month.
“It definitely puts a target on our back,” Roeper said. “I guess we’re the team to beat. It’s definitely going to give us some confidence as well. We know we can beat the teams in our conference, and we have one of the best conferences.” 