Michelle Liu has been a strong performer at third singles for the Pirates all season. (Wang photo by Martin Griff.)

Michelle Liu got a late start to her tennis career and had to wait three years to contribute for the High School South girls tennis team, but made the most of her chance.

The senior played third singles and was the most consistent winner for the Pirate girls. She came up biggest in the toughest matches of the year.

“I think I definitely had to work a lot harder,” Liu said. “I had to play smart, not just hard. I also think I had lots of great guidance from my coach. Coach (Carla) Crawbuck has been supportive the whole time. And I was going online and watching how to play better tennis. I got better from watching others play and from videos.”

High School South first singles Haijia Wang competes in a match at Ewing High on Oct. 16, 2017. (Photo by Martin Griff.)

Liu picked up the game quickly after taking up tennis as a freshman. She played sparingly her first two years of high school before having a few matches last year as a varsity alternate. When WW-P South graduated all three of its singles players last year, plus two doubles players, it opened the door for Liu and others.

“I became the third singles player through individual challenge matches during August,” Liu said. “Because all our singles players left from last year, we didn’t have much of a sense of how we’d do. During the year, even though we had completely new players at singles, with proper training and the proper mentality, I think we did pretty well.”

Liu was a big help in the lineup for the team, which finished with a 11-7 record.

She was an important factor against the toughest competition. She placed second at the Mercer County Tournament in her flight, and in the team state tournament, she helped key WW-P South’s eighth straight trip to the Central Jersey Group IV final. Despite being seeded sixth, Liu and the Pirates doubles won in a 3-2 upset of No. 2 seed East Brunswick, won again in a 4-1 semifinal win over South Brunswick and Liu went to a third-set tiebreaker before cramping in a loss to sectional champion Montgomery.

“She almost won every one of her state matches,” said Crawbuck. “That’s what pulls us through. Without her at East Brunswick, we would not have progressed.”

Liu never worried about the Pirates being underdogs against East Brunswick. She just focused on trying to knock off an opponent who had qualified recently for the state singles tournament.

West Windsor Plainsboro South’s Saru Daway competes against Ewing High’s Nneoma Sibeudu in third singles action at Ewing High on Monday, Oct. 16, 2017. (Photo by Martin Griff.)

“I didn’t realize that the girl I was playing with was so highly ranked,” Liu said. “During the match it’s important to play strategically and observe how your opponent plays instead of just trying to power through. You have to use a mental game. You have to capitalize on your chances to win points.

The win helped show that despite heavy graduation losses, the Pirates were still a formidable team. Liu was one of the oldest players, but it was a largely inexperienced squad that had to make big climbs in the lineup. Haijia Wang was a junior at first singles after playing second doubles last year, while Michelle deSouza was a senior at second singles after playing first doubles last year.

The first doubles was Erika Zhang, a senior who did not play last year while focusing on All-State band, and a freshman Saru Daway, and the second doubles had a senior, Giuliana Galati, and another freshman, Claire Yin.

“Throughout the season, we definitely gained confidence,” Liu said. “Because not only did we bond as a team and we supported each other, we also realized our potential and what we were able to accomplish despite being completely new to the positions we were playing.”

West Windsor Plainsboro South’s Michelle deSouza competes against Ewing High’s Natalie Houghton in second singles action at Ewing High on Monday, Oct. 16, 2017. (Photo by Martin Griff.)

The Pirates had to progress throughout the season in order to match the high standards set in previous seasons. It helped them reach the sectional final again.

“It was big,” Crawbuck said. “It was one of these things that you want to do your best. We knew we were the underdogs. It was a little surprising to see the difference between the No. 2 seed in Group IV and the No. 1. It was quite a big difference. No. 2 wasn’t that difficult to beat, but it was hard to get a point (against Montgomery). I kind of thought we’d at least get one.”

Liu seemed the best possibility. She adjusted well to being in the singles lineup after some spot duty in doubles last year.

“This year I was a singles player, and it’s definitely more pressure,” Liu said. “Translating the pressure you have into stronger play on the court has been manageable. It’s been fun. Singles is different from doubles. It requires more mental strength. Being able to challenge yourself is rewarding.”

Liu was largely an unknown, like the Pirates, when they went into the county tournament early in the year. She was seeded fourth, but ended up getting past a Hun School player in the semifinals to take on eventual team champion Hightstown’s third singles in the final.

“I think that was a really great experience being able to play with so many great players from other schools and learn what their strengths are,” Liu said. “It was challenging because the sun was so hot and sometimes it seems like you’re on the threshold of fatigue, and you have to power through it. When you get through it, it’s reassuring. It was empowering to get to the finals. I’d never played singles before.”

Liu’s finish helped the Pirates place third. The bronze was a good early showing just behind Hightstown and runner-up Princeton Day School.

“That wasn’t bad at all,” Crawbuck said. “We were still ahead of Princeton and Hopewell. Princeton Day did deserve that second they got. We had a good match, but they won both doubles.”

WW-P South continued to develop throughout the year. They challenged themselves with top teams from the Colonial Valley Conference, and the tough competition paid dividends when they had to go out of conference for two state wins.

“I’m happy with progress,” Crawbuck said. “I’m very happy about the girls gaining all this experience. There are at least three girls that will be back and they know what it’s like. It’s such a difference from the varsity to JV level with who they play. Our record wasn’t that great, but we’ll be well above .500.”

Liu was thrilled to be a part of this year’s success. She joined the tennis team in part because she knew her neighbor had a positive experience as a former WW-P South player and she wanted to enjoy that same environment. Now she can share the same feelings after finishing her career as a leader for a young Pirates team.

“Being a captain is really positive,” Liu said. “I’m able to build others up. I see freshmen who just joined the team this year and I can identify with them and help them reach their full potential as well.”