It would have been understandable if Zhenia Dementyeva was down in the dumps last Friday moments after the Princeton High girls’ tennis team fell 4-1 to Millburn in the state Group 3 teams finals.
PHS senior star Dementyeva and junior Nikhita Salgame fell 7-6, 6-2 at first doubles to Millburn’s pair of Anya Zakusilo and Sydney Zirlin, a defeat that clinched the title for Millburn.
But Dementyeva was all smiles as she reflected on the closely fought match that featured a number of marathon deuce games.
“It was probably the most fun match we have ever had because it was so neck and neck,” said Dementyeva.
“In the first set we were down 1-4 and we came back to a tie break, for us, that is remarkable. At the same time, we weren’t nervous. We were just having the time of our lives.”
While Dementyeva and Salgame understood that PHS was on the verge of falling to Millburn, they kept their minds on the task at hand.
“We weren’t thinking about that but we had that in the back of our minds,” said Dementyeva. “We were so wrapped up in the present that we didn’t think about the other scores.”
The pair has developed a positive mindset that has helped set them apart from other teams.
“Nikhita and I fit like two puzzle pieces,” said Dementyeva. “We have our own jokes; we whisper things to each other to crack each other up. I think what makes us successful as a team is the way we understand each other. We are able to criticize each other during a match. If we think we are doing something wrong, we tell each other, we correct it, and then we play better.”
Dementyeva and senior teammates, Katelyn Hojeibane and Rory Lewis, have reached a deep understanding over the last four years.
“The whole tennis team is like a great big family, the three of us are especially close,” said Dementyeva.
“I have known Rory since 6th grade, we walk home together. Katelyn and I take tennis lessons together. I think one thing that people wouldn’t expect about a girls tennis team is that we are drama free. There is no gossip, we mesh in such a perfect way that it makes us really comfortable with each other.”
PHS head coach Sarah Hibbert liked the way her team created some drama in the match against Millburn, fighting back from straight-set losses in second and third singles from Hojeibane and Lewis, respectively, to turn the three remaining matches into nailbiters.
In addition to the hard-fought defeat at first doubles, PHS first singles star Christina Rosca fell in three sets to Stephanie Schrage while the second doubles team of Elise Gerdes and Gillian Samios pulled out a 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 win over Ingrid Waung and Rebecca Blevins.
“We had no delusions of anything less than a real battle,” said Hibbert. “I was really pleased with the way the doubles fought through, both of them were down 1-4 in the first set and they came back. Second doubles won the first set and first doubles forced a tie break. They proved that they could compete with the best doubles teams in the state and beat them, in this case, the second doubles.”
Rosca showed her competitive fire as she rebounded from losing the first set to turn her match into a tense battle that saw Schrage prevail 6-2, 3-6, 6-4.
“Chris fought incredibly hard, Stephanie is a quality opponent as well,” added Hibbert.
“That could have gone either way, it came down to a point here or there and a bad bounce off the net, one missed shot, They had a great match. We fought and we at least scared them a little bit.”
The Little Tigers were determined to put a scare into undefeated and nine-time state champion Millburn.
“The one thing we said is that if it doesn’t start well, we are not going to give up and roll over, we are going to fight back,” said Hibbert.
“That’s one of the biggest things I was proud of, they fought back. Even though we didn’t start well, we gave them a fight and we worked hard. I think against most of the other teams here, we would have been able to pull out a victory. Unfortunately we ran into the No. 1 team in the state.”
This bunch of PHS players has established themselves as a top team in the annals of the program’s proud history.
“This is a really great group of girls, they have won the sectional title four years in a row and made it to the group final the last three so that was really exciting,” said Hibbert.
“To add the county tournament title this year as well was icing on the cake, especially for our three seniors. It is a nice way for them to go out. It would have been nicer if we had been able to win it, but we take little victories from making it through. We had a close semi match (a 3-2 win over Northern Highlands), they were a strong team too. You don’t get there if you are not a good team.”
In Hibbert’s view, her three seniors are leaving quite a legacy. “We’ll obviously miss them tremendously next year as players, as captains, as leaders, as people,” said Hibbert, whose team moved to 15-3 with a 3-2 loss to Group 4 champion WW/P-S last Monday in a regular season match.
“They are all really nice people and hard workers. They set a good tone. You can really see that they are all waiting and ready to congratulate each other. They really like being on the team together. We will miss them a lot next year.”
Dementyeva, for her part, will long remember what it was like being on the court Friday and playing her heart out to the end.
“It is so special to finish on a match like this,” said Dementyeva. “Of course I wish we won but I don’t think I would want it any other way. I am just elated. I was thinking like wow, I am never going to be able to play with these amazing girls ever again. I was just enjoying it, every moment of it.”