When it comes to boys tennis in the Northern Region, the first district that often comes to mind is Liberty. And when it comes to the Liberty District, three teams typically jump to the forefront: Thomas Jefferson, McLean and Langley.
None of that changes this year, as each member of the Liberty triumvirate appears to be even stronger than it was last year, when all three schools boasted some of the best players in the area. Langley, which won the region and advanced all the way to the state finals last spring, retains its No. 1 player and replaces its losses at the No. 2 and 3 spots with a pair of battle-tested freshmen. Defending district champion McLean, meanwhile, graduated three of last year’s starters but is deeper than ever this season.
Perhaps the most intriguing squad of the bunch is Jefferson, which had its streak of three straight region titles snapped in the quarterfinals against Washington-Lee last May. While Langley and McLean aim to improve on their banner campaigns of 2012, an influx of talent might have Jefferson poised to bash those hopes and regain its place atop the pecking order this spring.
It all starts with the deepest freshmen class in recent memory. Jefferson coach John Myers saw 53 kids show up at tryouts last month, about half of them freshmen. Myers had to cut several upperclassmen to make room for the new wave, placing 10 freshmen into his roster of 24.
“It’s the best turnout we’ve ever had, both in numbers and quality of players,” said Myers, who returns for his sixth season at the helm.
His top freshmen, Mark Prettyman and Nikhil Ramacahandran, are currently slotted in the No. 3 and 4 spots, respectively. Ranked highly on the USTA circuit in their age group, the newcomers enter their first high school season with plenty of experience under their belts, having played against kids they’ll be facing this season in tournaments growing up.
“I knew most of them coming in, so expectations for the team were high right from the start,” said Ramacahandran, who noted that both academics and tennis helped push him to attend Jefferson. “It’s good having a bunch of freshmen that are going to grow with you and play on the team with you for four years.”
Some first-year players take some time to get acclimated to the team format and playing against older competition. But Myers has wasted no time throwing Prettyman and Ramacahandran into the fray, even electing to pair them together for doubles.
“You’ve always got freshmen coming in, and usually the deal is you’ve got to season them. You’ve got to pair them with an upperclassman,” Myers said. “But it’s like college basketball now — freshmen come in and lead the way. They’ve been playing tennis for 10 years; they’re ranked. Why not put them together?”
The rest of Jefferson’s young lineup is filled out by sophomore Kevin Wan at the No. 2 spot and sophomore Saelig Khattan at the No. 5 spot. Senior Ian Lin sits at No. 6, while junior Brad Rosenblum is currently at No. 7.
More than anything, the Colonials will benefit from the return of their No. 1 player, Chris Vrabel, who sat out his junior season so that he could focus on academics. Last year’s No. 1 player, Stephen Hu, transferred to Potomac School, but his void will be filled by the No. 2-ranked senior in the Mid-Atlantic region, according to TennisRecruiting.net. He’s the second Vrabel with five-star status to attend Jefferson, as his older sister, Julie, now plays for Notre Dame as a freshman.
Vrabel, an excellent all-court player with a powerful left-handed serve, hopes to finish his senior season undefeated and lead his team to a region title.
“I’m really just going out and having fun,” Vrabel said. “Hopefully I can go out and win all my matches.”
That mission began in earnest Wednesday evening, when the Colonials faced a tough early-season test in a match against McLean. Vrabel dispatched defending region champion Nik Padmanabhan, 10-4, to help Jefferson come away with a thrilling 5-4 victory. The win was sealed by a dramatic scenario in the second doubles match, which saw Prettyman drop out after becoming ill following his singles match. George Perry subbed in and teamed with Ramacahandran to overcome a 3-0 hole and win 8-5.
It was a serious boost of confidence for a team that had to overcome the onset of doubt following last year’s regional quarterfinal exit. Jefferson lost that match, a 5-4 decision against Washington-Lee in a marathon 6-hour affair, with its top two players sidelined due to sickness.
“We’re a little more humble this year,” Myers said. “It was an eye-opening experience I think for most of these guys to lose like that.”
If they stay healthy this time around, the Colonials might well be the ones humbling others when the postseason arrives.