Jacquelyn Cai doesn’t think back to all the success that she’s had on the golf course or the pressure it could bring to her final season.
The High School North senior has always focused on what’s immediately ahead of her, and it’s helped her separate herself from others.
“It’s her composure,” said North head coach Tom Connolly. “She has an attitude that the next shot is the most important. She can tune out everything she’s done and everything ahead of her. I’ve never seen a more composed golfer out there.”
Cai’s approach stood out early in her career, and it has made her a leader for a North girls team that has sky-high expectations after winning its first South Jersey, Section 2 championship in program history last year. They placed fourth at the Tournament of Champions.
“Our aim as a team is to finish at the top of the Tournament of Champions,” Connolly said. “We have team goals, and Jackie will be a large part of that. We were fourth last year and third the year before. This is the year I think we’re going to keep moving up.”
The Knights have strong numbers with 12 varsity golfers this year, and they wasted no time showing their capabilities. In the first match of the season, they shot a program-record in a 157-203 win over rival High School South at Princeton Country Club.
“I’m still getting back into it,” said Cai, who along with Katherine Lu and Anjali Dhayagude shot 39s, while Hannah Trinh shot 40. “I think our team will go pretty far. I feel pretty confident, but I’m working on it. You can always get better.”
Connolly said he was impressed from the start of Cai’s career. She set high expectations by winning the Mercer County Tournament for girls as a freshman.
“I was surprised,” Connolly said. “I knew she was really good. Her and her father used to golf around here at Cranbury. I knew she’d be one of the best, but I didn’t think she’d win as a freshman. She beat out a lot of good golfers that day. A lot of seniors.”
Even before that day, Cai could have been feeling pressure. She followed behind brother, Charles, who was a terrific golfer for North who won the boys’ MCT in 2012 before continuing his career at Dartmouth College.
“I started probably around 6 or 7 because my brother got into it,” Cai said. “I just followed along. I followed his tournaments and then I started to go down that same track.”
‘I think it’s exciting seeing the team come together and be the strongest it’s been. It’s one of the strongest since I’ve been in school.’
Cai says that she’s used to having a successful brother, and doesn’t feel any competition between the two. Still, she did something he never did by winning a second MCT crown last year. She was third on a match of cards as a sophomore.
“It all goes back to remembering it’s a game and you’re supposed to have fun while doing it, and you shouldn’t put too much pressure on yourself because it’s not going to do you any good,” Cai said. “It’s hard at times, but you gradually train yourself. It’s disciplining your mind to focus on the game.”
Cai is among the most respected golfers in the state to return this year. She tied for 20th at last year’s Tournament of Champions after winning the sectional.
“This year, a lot of those kids graduated so she’ll move up,” Connolly said. “They rank the girls all year and then they decide who goes to the Tournament of Champions.
“We had three of the top 50 in the state last year. I have sophomores Hannah Trinh and Anjali Dhayagude. They both made the Tournament of Champions. I have a freshman this year who is outstanding, Katie Lu.”
Trinh was 10th last year and Dhayagude tied Cai for 20th. The Knights can also call on: seniors Aruja Patel; juniors Esha Raman, Akila Saravanan, and Jasmin Trenfield; sophomore Arushi Patel; and freshmen Aditya Bhardwaj, Sonia Nindra, and Tessa Wu.
“We have everyone back from our team that won the sectionals last year,” Connolly said. “Our strength is our depth. Every team has someone like Jackie at the top, but we have four girls like Jackie and then our fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth are really strong. We win our matches with our four, five, six, seven, eight girls.”
The Knights have won the last two MCT team trophies, and are the favorites for another this year. That would be just a starting point for a group with the potential to make more history at the TOC.
“The team’s going to be very strong,” Cai said. “Our new people are getting better and they’re pretty good. I think it’s exciting seeing the team come together and be the strongest it’s been. It’s one of the strongest since I’ve been in school.”
Having Cai return for one more season is a big help. She has been steady for the Knights throughout her career.
“When I first met her, she had a terrific practice work ethic and then a great demeanor, always calm, nothing seemed to rattle her,” Connolly said. “She was a good example, even to the juniors and seniors older than her, how to stay focused when you’re working. She’s been a large part of our success as a team.”
Her importance has continued each season. She is working on being more consistent this year and shooting for par at Cranbury Golf Club, the Knights’ home course. She shot a par 35 once last year.
“It’s just staying calm under pressure and keeping an even head and knowing the only thing you can control is the next shot,” Cai said. “You just need to focus on what you can do at the moment.”
Cai may be ultra-focused this year because it could be her last year of playing with a team. She is still finalizing her college plans. She applied without expecting to play golf, but still could walk on. Being a part of the Knights has been a highlight to her high school experience.
“I like the team aspect of it, especially our team is very close knit,” she said. “It’s like a family. It’s been a good experience bonding with these girls over our shared interest of golf. It’s been a unique experience.”
Connolly is sure that Cai could play at any number of colleges. He’s happy to see her lead WW-P North one more season.
“As a team leader she just does so much to not only help the kids with their golf, but help them with how to build their schedule, and she helps them with their classes,” he said. “She takes all APs and is in National Honor Society. She’s terrific with helping the rest of the team maneuver the long schedule as well as helping them line up a putt or get out of a bunker and all this other stuff she’s always doing.”
Cai looks to help her teammates any way possible. She’s thrilled to be finishing her career with such a strong group.
“Our team is very deep this year,” Cai said. “It’s great to see how hard we work and how that’s going to affect our performance in tournaments and matches. I’m pretty excited to see how we do.”