The Princeton High School girls’ tennis team graduated six seniors following the end of a 2011 season that included its first sectional title in 13 years, so the Little Tigers weren’t sure what this year would bring.
“We had no idea what to expect,” head coach Sarah Hibbert said. “We were kind of expecting a rebuilding year because we only had one returning senior.”
What they got was something nobody saw coming. The girls captured their second straight sectional title on Oct. 16 in a victory over Hopewell and were undefeated until they lost to Mendham High School in the Group III championship.
“We weren’t expected to be as good as we were this year,” Katelyn Hojeibane said. “We were way better than expected. The fact that we lost six seniors just made our win that much more special.”
Maddie Cahill-Sanidas was the only returning senior on the team; Lindsay Eberhardt, who moved up from junior varsity, would join her.
Hibbert believed that 2012 would almost definitely be a rebuilding year for the team.
“We were just looking to do the best we could,” she said. “My lineup from what I predicted last year was completely different.”
Before preseason began, Hibbert said she and the returning team members had heard that they had a few solid freshmen coming in.
“Until they actually show up on your courts during preseason, you can’t be too sure,” she said.
What they saw in players like Christina Rosca, though, changed the whole outlook on the season before it even began.
“It definitely made me more confident about the team,” Hojeibane said. “When we saw them warming up together, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, who are these girls?’”
“We were obviously really excited,” she said. “Whenever you see that you have talent, one or two good players can change the whole lineup.”
Rosca proved to be a critical part of the lineup, advancing to the state tournament and winning key matches throughout the season.
“As a freshman, making it to the semifinals of the state tournament is quite an impressive showing,” Hibbert said. “With her and the younger players we had, we really were able to form a strong lineup, and I’m very excited about the way it turned out.”
The team won each of its matches leading up to tournament play, but Hibbert said one of the keys to the season was a victory over West Windsor South.
“They were touted as the team to beat going into preseason,” she said. “They had pretty much everything back, and we started pretty much from scratch. We weren’t sure how that match would turn out, but it was very close. The girls just all fought really hard.”
The season ran smoothly until one of the team’s anchors, sophomore Chenchen Wang, suffered an injury right before the Mercer County Tournament.
“By then, we knew we were on the way to sectionals,” Eberhardt said. “When that happened, we were a little worried about how the rest of the season would turn out, so it was even better when Katelyn and Zhenia [Dementyev] moved up to singles and played great. They were able to handle the pressure.”
The Little Tigers were able to persevere through injury and a complete reshuffling of the lineup, and they credit that to their closeness as a team.
“We’re so close on and off the courts,” Allison Hubert said. “We do lots of team bonding. We just all played so well. We are so excited about this season.”
Sophomore Rory Lewis agreed.
“We’re not nervous to make mistakes or try something that’s sort of more dangerous to do,” she said. “Even if you miss or mess up, your team’s still behind you to get that point.
The team’s success with so many youth players has also given Hibbert and the girls more of the same to look forward to in the future.
“Next year, we keep our singles lineup intact, and we have half our doubles players returning,” she said. “There were a lot of questions this year just because a lot of them hadn’t been to the tournaments yet. They’ve now gone through it and had such a successful season, I think they’ll continue wanting more. This group will be together for awhile, and they have the potential to do great things.”