Junior Suhani Sheth (left) and senior Jennifer Kimball (right)
Rocky Hill girls’ tennis recently wrapped up the most successful season in the program’s history, winning 15 of 18 regular season meets to capture a division title and set a new standard of excellence, on and off the court.
“My goal coming into this season was to win 13 of the 18 matches. After a year off where we lost six seniors last year, I didn’t know what to expect,” said head coach Mike Dudis, “Coming back this year I thought we had the talent level to do it if we put people in the right spots, but I didn’t know we would be breaking school records.”
Filling the Terriers two singles slots were Suhani Sheth and Jennifer Kimball, who more than lived up to the billing.
Sheth went undefeated, winning all 18 matches in the regular season.
“It definitely exceeding my expectations,” Sheth said of her success, “I wasn’t really planning or thinking that I’d go through the season undefeated, especially considering the tough competition from Glastonbury and Farmington.”
The junior, who made All-State, had notable wins over Catherine Zak (Glastonbury) and Krithika Santhanam (Farmington) in the regular season. She went on to soundly defeat Watertown’s Sarah Cipriano (6-2, 6-0) in the Class M Tournament and Valley Regional’s Ava Ramos (6-2, 6-2) in the State Invitational Tournament.
“I’ve said this to anyone that will listen that Su is better at her sport than anybody else at this school is at their sport. Obviously, I come from a little bit of bias and we have great players at this school, but what makes her great is not just her skills set, which is phenomenal, but it’s her mindset. She never gets down on herself, she’s never negative. Win or lose, she’s the same. Even against Glastonbury, she lost that first set to Catie who is an excellent player, and at the end of the set she was still relaxed and never down.”
Dudis added that Sheth works just as hard outside of competition, “She is probably the most joyful player that I’ve ever coached. She’s amazing, I can’t say enough positive things about her as a person or as a player. At the end of practice, she would be with our kids who are beginners and hit with them and work on their confidence, just trying to boost the team’s spirt. That’s the type of person that she is.”
Kimball, a senior, was equally impressive, winning 19 of the 20 matches this spring. She closed her high school career by winning 37 consecutive games, sweeping her final six opponents, including both in the state tournament.
“I definitely didn’t think I’d go 17-1 in the regular season,” recalled Kimball, “I was feeling comfortable coming into the season, but I never expected a result like that.”
Kimball, who also played soccer and basketball at RHHS, was back at full strength after suffering a high ankle sprain early in her sophomore season and missing last year because of the COVID cancellation.
She used tennis as an outlet during quarantine, “Tennis was helpful during that time because it was a safe place, a socially distance sport that you can play during those times. Even though we weren’t practicing at the school I was able to go play with my family and get ready for next season.”
Dudis said that Kimball had the best first serve in program history, adding, “Jen was determined. She had that same determination as a sophomore and that injury was a huge bummer, but she came back and played doubles on basically one leg that season. It was something that she hadn’t done before, but she wanted to help the team.”
“This year she realized how good she could be. Her competitiveness is unbelievable, she sets her mind to it and wants to win and succeed at it. She ended her last match playing the best tennis she has ever played. She was playing at the same level Su was playing. I didn’t look at it at 1-2, I looked at it as two 1s.”
It was the Glastonbury meet where the the team found confidence in competition.
“I remember I played [Su] in a really competitive set in practice the day before our big Glastonbury match, so I went into that match with so much more confidence. I knew if I can hang with Su, I can beat anybody at 2,” recalled Kimball, who defeated Glastonbury’s Annee Bess Blair, “I think that was a big turning point. Glastonbury is always so good at every sport, and they have such a strong reputation, so winning against her was a big confidence boost.”
Both Sheth and Kimball won, yet the Terriers fell to the Guardians. The team used it as a springboard for the rest of the season, winning 14 of the next 15 matches.
“I started to realize how good we could be after the Glastonbury loss. I thought the team unity was great, especially after Glastonbury. The way the team rallied and watched those two play the third set and recognizing that it was against Glastonbury, the team that we talk about in the conference. When you compare any team in the league it’s Glastonbury, Farmington, and then everybody else,” said Dudis, whose team responded with six straight wins, “It was a huge lift to everybody else. The other girls saw what Su and Jen did and the pressure went up. They’re our two best players, they’re our two captains, and they are working extremely hard and leaving it all out there.”
Wins over Wethersfield and Newington during the final two weeks of the season assured a division title.
It turned out that it was a pair of sophomores that helped lock up the division. The #3 doubles team of Katie Oostendorp and Alyssa Gua were the difference, breaking 3-3 ties against both Wethersfield and Newington.
The duo did it again in the tournament win over Watertown, earning a distinguished label from their coach.
“I call them my closers. When it came down to Kaite and Alyssa I knew at that point we were going to win. That was our recipe all year,” said Dudis, who saw the maturation of the young pairing, “Their confidence levels went up, their serving improved dramatically, their groundstrokes were better. They are very close friends, and that absolutely helps when finding those right doubles combinations. Sometimes it takes you five, six, seven matches but for them it was natural.”
Senior Hannah Conneely, who played #3 singles, finished 15-4 and won (6-3, 6-0) in the Terriers tourney triumph over Watertown.
Dudis said that Conneely was a confident and calming influence on the team. He added that senior Caitlyn Kownacki (who played doubles) was an extension of the coaching staff.
“I gave her the Coaches Award because I can vent to her about tennis. She’d give me lineup suggestions, talk other kids up, and she was awesome with Su.”
Jasmine Ly, Kira Ravat, Palak Jain, Sophia Pawlak also played key roles this spring.
“I think a lot of us became close. We supported each other and stayed for each other’s games. That helped push people during their matches because I think it’s a lot more beneficial when others are cheering you on,” said Sheth, who will return at #1 next spring, “It was just about how close everyone became throughout the season. Between the team dinners and everyone supporting each other, a lot of us became really good friends. Practices were fun, games were fun, tennis became a really good distraction.”
Kimball, who will attend Worchester Polytechnic Institute, added, “It means a lot to me to have a season like this, especially being on this team for four years and having the ups and downs, like missing half of a season and missing an entire season. To have a season like this and to now be in the school record books with the best record is amazing.”
Dudis added, “Team comradery really matters. I’ve seen a lot of high school teams and I’ve coach tennis for ten years and I’ve had more enjoyment coaching this team than I’ve ever had before. And it’s not about the wins and losses, even though I’ve enjoyed winning those 16 matches, but it was generally that kids where excited to be at practice and we had zero negativity. They wanted to be there, they had goals, they were genuinely happy for each other.”
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin