October 13, 2021

Making Memorable Debut in Non-Public A Play, PDS Girls’ Tennis Advances to Sectional Final

By Bill Alden

Making its debut in the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) Non-Public A sectional, the Princeton Day School girls’ tennis team is leaving quite a first impression.

Seeded fourth, PDS defeated fifth-seeded Red Bank Catholic 5-0 in the sectional quarters on October 5. Two days later, the Panthers upset top-seeded Donovan Catholic 4-1 in the semis.

With PDS having joined the NJSIAA starting with the 2021-22 school year, the squad was fired up to test itself in the sectional.

“It is a first for us,” said Panther head coach Michael Augsberger, whose team is slated to play at second-seeded Trinity Hall on October 12 in the sectional final with the victor advancing to state Group semis on October 14 at Mercer County Park. “We really were excited for it.”

Augsberger was excited by how his first singles player, junior Neha Khandkar, battled in her 7-6, 7-6 win over Peiyi Liu of Red Bank Catholic.

“The No. 1 match was the best tennis match I have ever seen ever coaching tennis in my career,” said Augsberger.

“It was incredibly cerebral tennis. They were asking really deep questions of each other with a lot of short angles, a lot of smart shots and thinking. I loved it. I sat there with the other coach so I could get a better angle to watch behind the baseline with their team. It was just a joy.”

The Panthers cruised in the other four flights as Kristina Wang at second singles, Amy Zhou at third singles, the first doubles team of Sophie Zhang and Josie Baranski, and the second doubles pair of Stella Ringblom and Eshaa Doshi all produced straight-set wins.

“They all took care of business; you are challenged in every way no matter who you play and it is a different sort of pressure to deal with when you are favored,” said Augsberger.

“When you have to bring offensive tennis to the other player, you don’t want to wait around for them to make mistakes when you are expected to take the initiative so they handled that pressure well.”

In order to better handle the pressure of the state tournament, Augsberger shuffled his doubles lineup to pair more experienced payers with each other as Zhang is a senior and Baranski is a junior while Ringblom and Doshi are both seniors.

“It is about chemistry and experience; it is about volleying and angles,” said Augsberger.

“Josie and Sophie really have a great chemistry, they love playing together. They have a bit more experience. They go well together. Josie’s hands are very strong. Eshaa is a senior and she played USTA tournaments. She and Stella know each other really well but is also about not feeling the pressure that younger players might feel the first time at the Preps and the first time at states. That comes from how the girls feel about each other and the chemistry that is involved in that and the experience level. They are used to being in these spots.”

In the semifinal matchup, the Panthers were unfazed by facing top-seeded and once-beaten Donovan Catholic.

“One of the strong aspects of the team is that they do a good job of not paying attention so much to the seeds and the narrative that can go along with it,” said Augsberger.

“Part of that comes from experience where you have played in other tournaments and you know what goes into these seeding decisions and they are not always the most well-informed. There is not always a lot of data to go on. It is not being afraid.”

Once again, Khandkar showed no fear at first singles, topping Emma Conroy 6-1, 6-3, while the first doubles pair of Zhang and Baranski had to battle hard in topping Isabella Ayres and Gianna Rao 6-3, 7-5.

“Neha and our first doubles were the ones who were tested the most,” said Augsberger.

“Neha did a good job, she was feeling a bit of a blister injury on her foot. She fought well through that. She was limping towards the end of the match. She is the most mentally strong player I have ever seen. Donovan’s girls are athletes, they play other sports. Their coach [Tom Connerton] has taught them tennis over the past year and a half. They know the strategy and our girls have struggled when teams back off and aren’t playing as aggressively. So they had to fight through that and they eventually came up with the answer.”

For Augsberger, seeing his squad fight its way to the sectional final was special.

“The goal is to go all the way,” asserted Augsberger, whose team has a 5-4 record in dual match play this fall. “This is another step along the way and we are excited.”

The matchup against Trinity Hall figures to be exciting.

“From what I hear, they have what it takes to win it and we have to respect that,” said Augsberger.

“Their No. 2, I hear, is very strong particularly and that means across the board, they are going to be strong. They were always one of the favorites along with us so we knew going in that they were going to be strong.”

In Augsberger’s view, the depth of the Panthers could make the difference as they look to make it to Mercer County Park on Thursday.

“I think doubles is going to be a major factor and that comes down to the preparation that our assistants brought to them,” said Augsberger

“JB [Jon Brown] has got them playing more angles and trying to widen the court. That is going to be huge for us because we have a deep team, we know that. If we can make our depth speak volumes that is going to carry us a long way.”