By Justin Feil, Contributor
When the state tournament starts, the Hillsborough High School girls tennis team could finally have a chance to show its strength.
Though the Raiders’ record doesn’t look great, Hillsborough head coach Katie Daly said that’s more a product of the area than a reflection of the team’s ability.
“It’s a very competitive conference,” she said. “Our goal is really for our girls to be competitive in every match. Obviously we want to win, but if we don’t win, our goal is to be competitive and give our opponent a good match.”
The Raiders won one of their first nine matches going into Wednesday’s scheduled match with Hunterdon Central, the one team that they beat, after a solid showing at the Somerset County Tournament. Hillsborough sent every flight to the quarterfinals on their way to a sixth-place finish Saturday.
“My girls played very well,” Ms. Daly said. “Everyone made it to the quarterfinals, which is the first time that happened at least in a few years.”
The second doubles team of Kelly McSpiritt and Nicole Kim advanced to the semifinals. They are two of the six returning players for the Raiders from last season.
“We have five seniors and six returning players,” Ms. Daly said. “Elena Wei, she was third singles. We lost Elena, which obviously we miss her, but we have many returning players that have experience.
Kelly Jiang returns at the top of the lineup. She brings stability and a steadiness that is crucial against the top players in the area, and the Raiders know what to expect from her.
“That’s always nice,” Ms. Daly said. “Kelly is obviously a strong player. She’s also one of our captains this year. She’s a great role model on how to be on court¼she always gives her all, she always tries her best.”
At second singles, the Raiders welcome their one new addition to the lineup from last year. Jackie Eschbach is a freshman who has slid in behind Kelly Jiang.
“(Eschbach) is doing very well,” Ms. Daly said. “She’s a very strong player overall. Obviously it’s hard as a freshman to come in and play second singles. She’s playing against very competitive teams and very competitive players. She’s a great player. She’s gaining confidence every match.”
Smruti Rajpara was first doubles last year, but with the graduation of Ms. Wei, she jumped into the singles lineup at third singles.
“Smruti has done a great job moving into the singles lineup,” Ms. Daly said. “I know going into the season, she was happy playing either singles or doubles. She has a very unique game, a lot of slice, which at third singles does give her opponents a lot of trouble.”
With Ms. Rajpara sliding up the ladder, it forced the Raiders to put a new team at first doubles. Suranjan Thakuria and Patricia Schenfeld made it easy. They were second doubles last year, stayed together and moved up one flight.
“This is their third year together,” Ms. Daly said. “They work very well together. They communicate well. That definitely is something that helps them, they’re familiar with playing with one another.”
The only adjustment for them is going from the second doubles flight up one level where the teams are just a little better.
“Part of it and it’s something they’re doing a great job with is being confident,” Ms. Daly said. “It can be intimidating shifting from second to first doubles. They’ve played great teams at second doubles as well. It’s just a matter of being confident at both position.”
Nicole Kim, who was a singles player previously, and Kelly McSpiritt, who played first doubles last year with Smruti Rajpara, have come together quickly to become a formidable team at the bottom of the lineup.
“My second doubles, they weren’t partners last year but they were the year before,” Ms. Daly said. “They have familiarly with playing with each other as well, which definitely helps them as well.”
Both Ms. Kim and Ms. McSpiritt lived up to their billing at the county tournament. They had established themselves in the early part of the season as a strong duo, and it showed at the SCT.
“It came together pretty quickly,” Ms. Dalysaid. “They were seeded fourth in the county tournament. They made it to the semifinals. They’ve had two wins over Montgomery, including one in the county tournament. They’ve had wins over Hunterdon Central, Bridgewater. They definitely are comfortable playing together and it’s been showing in the results.”
The Raiders still have a few weeks left of matches to pull together a few more wins. They will graduate most of their lineup, and they’d like to go out on a positive note.
“We actually are almost done,” Ms. Daly said. “We have states and a couple more matches in the conference. We have Ridge, which Ridge is incredibly competitive. We’ll be doing our best against them. Then we have Hunterdon Central and Bridgewater coming up as well this week, which are always competitive matches.”
The coach hopes that Hillsborough’s tennis team can string together some wins out of those coming matches, especially against Hunterdon Central.
“I’m particularly invested in the Hunterdon Central match because my husband is their coach,” Ms. Daly said. “We beat them earlier in the season, so hopefully we can beat them again.”
The state tournament applications were submitted Tuesday, and the Raiders are hopeful that they will be placed in a draw where they can go outside of their conference to show their mettle.
“You see 1-8 and it can be a little disheartening. I try to stress to all the girls that we’re a great team, it’s just a matter of we’re in a very competitive conference and county,” Ms. Daly said. “It’s nice when we get to go outside of the county and the conference just to see how we do against other teams as well¼but getting outside of the conference and the county gives us different exposure and different opportunities.”
By Justin Feil, Contributor