When the Lawrence High boys’ tennis team lost to the Lawrenceville School on April 25, no one really paid much attention since that is what is supposed to happen when a prep power meets a public school team with modest success.
Something happened that day, however, that changed everything.
The final score was 3-2, and the Big Red couldn’t pull it out until its second doubles team won 6-3, 5-7, 6-4. The fact that the Cardinals nearly pulled off an upset was not lost on them.
“As the season progressed I think right after our Lawrenceville Prep match we really started to believe,” junior first doubles player Sharath Mahadevan said. “Even though we lost, we lost 3-2 to a team like Lawrenceville, which is such a powerhouse. I feel like after that, we gained a lot of confidence and then throughout the rest of the season it kept building and building.”
Coach Alex Krajunus would not argue that thought.
“It was a very close loss,” Krajunus said. “Hanging in against a top team like Lawrenceville, they realized ‘We really belong here.’ And that gave them the belief to do what they did and they bounced back in a strong way.”
Strong might be too light of a term.
From that point on, the Cardinals:
·Beat longtime nemesis Hopewell Valley to win the Colonial Valley Conference’s Valley Division title.
·Defeated Holmdel 3-2, in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group II semifinals, avenging a sectional final loss from two years ago
·With the stakes even higher in the rematch, beat Hopewell yet again in the CJ II finals to win the program’s first sectional championship.
·On May 22, reached the state finals and won the state title for the first time by defeating Haddonfield, 4-1, and Demarest, 3-2.
·Not content to settle for just a Group II crown, toppled Tenafly, 3-2 for the program’s first Tournament of Champions win.
The run ended with a 5-0 loss to Montgomery, which went on to win its third straight TOC crown. But even in that match, several Cardinals put up good fights.
“The fact we were at the Tournament of Champions, playing the number one team in the state, it was just an honor to be on the same court with them,” senior second doubles Adi Rajagopalan said.
With an 18-3 record it was, simply stated, the greatest boys’ tennis season in LHS history.
“It was very, very cool,” Krajunus said. “It was a little bit of a monkey off our backs, so to speak. I’ve been around the team as an assistant or head coach for five years. I always knew we had a strong tennis program, we also just had some really bad luck having Hopewell in our area and having to run up against Holmdel in the states. So we didn’t have the chance to show everybody what we could do because we always had some tough competition holding us back a little. To get past those hurdles alone was great, but then to keep going was really special.”
That was what was so impressive. Lawrence could have been happy just to win a division, or a sectional, or get to the state finals. But they kept winning until they met the unquestioned top public school in the state. The Cards were not predicted to go as far as they did, but they were never intimidated.
“Coming into any match we had a fresh mindset,” senior second doubles Nikhil Kotta said. “The team we played, it didn’t matter how good they were. We just want to put our best on the court.”
“When you’re the favorite there’s so much pressure on you,” Mahadevan said. “Everybody’s like ‘They’re gonna win, they have to win.’ When you’re the underdog everyone says ‘Oh they’re gonna lose.’ It just lights a fire under you like ‘Hey, I’m gonna prove them wrong.’”
They kept proving it, as the number of doubters shrunk as the amount of huge Cardinal wins grew. The final proof of their ability was winning a TOC match.
“Beating Tenafly really showed we belonged there,” freshman first doubles Paraj Goyal said. “People thought ‘They got through, but they didn’t have to play (West Windsor-Plainsboro) South and North, or Montgomery to win a state championship.’ But beating Tenafly showed we belonged.”
His playing partner agreed, as Mahadevan added, “That showed people we’re with the top of the top. It’s not like we got there by a fluke or we’re lucky and got a lucky draw. We were there because we were meant to be there.”
They were indeed. The program has been steadily building and it started under previous coach Pat Tarrant, who invoked a no-cut policy and began to get more players to come out. Things slowly began to build under Krajunus as the Cards went 16-6 and reached the CJ II finals in 2017 and went 14-6 but lost to Hopewell in the sectional quarterfinals last year.
This season, they were aided by the arrival of two brothers from Ecuador, as talented sophomore Alejandro Jacome and junior Ronaldo Jacome took over at first and second singles. That allowed Ram Laxminarayan to excel at third singles, while Goyal-Mahadevan and Kotta-Rajagopalan wreaked havoc at doubles.
“I heard in the summer they were coming but I didn’t know how good they were,” Kotta said. “I thought ‘OK maybe it will be another Lawrence year, we’ll get a little bit better.’ As soon as I saw them on the court, it wasn’t just how good they played, but that they pushed the rest of us to play even much better. Practices had become very crazy.”
It helped that they were able to mesh right away with the returning players.
“They’re just really great kids, they’ve taken to the team very well and the team’s taken to them,” Krajunus said. “It’s just a pleasure to have them. Just having that top talent come in at one and two, I got to keep other players at third singles or doubles. That was really beneficial because the players had another year against similar quality opponents at similar positions, and I think you saw how that paid off by how much success those positions had.”
And while the loss to Lawrenceville was a turning point, there were other signature wins that kept things rolling in the right direction.
“It all started at Hopewell when we won the Valley,” Kotta said. “After that we got hope. And then against Holmdel, the two doubles had lost. It was almost like all hope was gone, but the three singles all pulled through and we started getting more hope with how far we could go.”
It was the doubles turn to play hero in the state finals, as Kotta-Rajagopalan pulled out a 1-6, 7-5, 6-4 win to clinch the 3-2 victory.
“That felt amazing,” Rajagopalan said. “We didn’t actually realize that it was all down to us so it was just an amazing feeling to win it for the team.”
And when Lawrence talks about the “team” there is a definite emphasis on the word.
“There were two keys to this year,” Mahadevan said. “One for the big lock, one for the little lock. Our coach is the one for the little lock, he brings us all together. He is a mentor, he helps all of us, brings all of us up.
“The key to the big lock is our whole team. The matches that we won, our team is behind us. Our whole team is supporting us, the JV and everybody. I feel that with that support we get even more pumped up and we feel like we need to win.”
Athletic Director Greg Zenerovitz feels that tight-knit atmosphere can all be traced back to Krajunus.
“Alex is just great,” Zenerovitz said. “The credit goes to the culture he’s kind of developed and put in place. It’s all about the team and that’s really helped them. After the matches it’s not just we won at second singles, or third singles, it’s the whole program that won, and the support they’re showing. That’s one thing that’s great to be around. That’s what we’ll reflect upon. A lot of kids feel sorry they’re not playing, but not this tennis team. They’re rooting our players on. That’s not an easy job to instill that culture and philosophy. It’s helpful to have.
“When you’re out there watching matches and you see 25 Cardinals rooting their teammates on, that definitely helps in these tight matches. These matches have been so close and could have gone either way, but the fact we have this culture, the kids are totally into it. Even the JV players were so happy with what’s going on out there. It’s really been fun. It’s been a great ride. I’m really proud of the way they were able to accomplish those things, and represent Lawrence and the community and really, all of Mercer County.”