Rise of the Cougars: Goculdas leads senior-laden, championship-driven East

Cherry Hill East’s Pallavi Goculdas leads an impressive senior-laden class that also includes (from left) Sunny Doshi, Mari Kimenker, Keva Singhal, Naomi Korn, Sydney Gaffin, Maya Jacobs and Molly Phillips. The reigning sectional champion Cougars are eyeing their first state title since 2004. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

The first week of senior year can be a little nerve-wracking for high school students. Sure it’s fun to catch up with friends after the summer, but a lot of 12th-graders are in limbo, unsure of college decisions or what’s next as they approach adulthood.

Cherry Hill East’s Pallavi Goculdas is not one of these seniors. The 17-year-old first singles player for the Cougars tennis team already has a jam-packed schedule of school, sports, and work and knows what she wants to do with her life, too. 

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“I want to go into investment banking and become a venture capitalist,” Goculdas said. “I have a plan. I don’t know how it’s going to work out.”

Goculdas laughed. She can’t predict the future, obviously, but with a strong academic and athletic resume – which includes her current job at Code Ninjas, where she teaches kids computer coding – Goculdas probably won’t have a problem choosing a college in the coming month. 

A bigger challenge would seem to be juggling schoolwork with varsity tennis and a job schedule at the same time. 

“It’s a challenging schedule,” she said. “It’s tough, because I’m also taking six AP classes senior year. But I like the challenges. I think I thrive under pressure and a busy schedule. That’s how it’s going to be in college.”

Prior to the start of her senior year, Goculdas took part in a One-on-One with South Jersey Sports Weekly.

Goculdas in action during last year’s sectional championship. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

South Jersey Sports Weekly: How satisfying was last year’s sectional championship?

Pallavi Goculdas: It was amazing. We worked so hard so it was great to have something at the end as a team (to celebrate). 

SJSW: How many years have you been at first singles?

Goculdas: My freshman year I played second behind Stephanie Yanosov, who plays at Quinnipiac (University). So since sophomore year.

SJSW: Is there anything specific where you think you’ve improved the most?

Goculdas: I think I’ve improved on a lot of the mental and physical aspects of my game, but in particular for the past year I’ve really been working on my fitness. … And I’ve also been really working on my serve and my variety. And I think one of the best things about my game is how much I use my mind.

SJSW: Yeah, it really is a sport where the most mentally strong is the one who is going to survive sometimes.

Goculdas: It’s a tough sport, like a chess match all the way through.

SJSW: Did your older brother, Rahul, play in college?

Goculdas: He played at TCNJ his freshman year and then he transferred to Pitt for a different experience, which is awesome. But he still plays for fun. He’s more involved in academics now. He’s three years older than me.

SJSW: Did you guys play against each other as kids?

Goculdas: Yeah, he’s like my best friend. We always kept pushing each other. We weren’t competitive in a sense where we were competing against each other. I’ve always looked up to him. He’s very mentally tough and very, very physical on the court.

SJSW: How old were you when you began playing?

Goculdas: I started playing in tournaments when I was 9 and probably began playing just for fun at 5 or 6. I grew up watching my brother and his friends play and got into it. 

SJSW: Did you ever play other sports?

Goculdas: Yeah, I did soccer and I also did swimming for a couple of years. I stopped to play tennis full-time but I love those sports as well.

SJSW: How confident are you in this team’s chances this year? I believe all of your singles players and half of the doubles teams are back, right?

Goculdas: I’m very confident. Everyone has been working very hard, especially in the offseason. It’s a super solid team. Everyone here wants to win, but they also want to have fun. So it’s a great experience. I think we’re going to do very well this year.

SJSW: I was looking today and saw the last time East played in a state championship was ‘08, that they won four straight state titles from 2001-04, and that they had played in seven of eight title matches from 1997 to 2004. How much do you want to get back to that, take this program back to that level?

Goculdas: Yeah, for sure. I think we have the capability and potential to even win the Tournament of Champions if we use all of the skill that we have, positivity, and our great team mindset. So I think we can take it to the next level and be back to where we were then.

The 2018 Cougars pose with the South Jersey Group 4 championship trophy. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

SJSW: Besides your brother, do you have tennis role models?

Goculdas: Yeah, the professionals like Dominic Thiem, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and also Ashleigh Barty, someone who isn’t as well known but someone who uses variety and really uses her mind when she plays.

SJSW: How about role models in life?

Goculdas: I always look up to my parents (Ketan and Kavita Goculdas), they came here (from India) with nothing and they’ve set up such great opportunities for themselves and then us. They really push us to challenge ourselves in the classroom and outside on the court. And I work, too. They always push us to do our best in everything we do. So I’ve always look up to them because they work hard in everything they do.

SJSW: Who is your favorite high school player that’s not on your team?

Goculdas: One of my best friends is Renna Mohsen-Breen (of Moorestown Friends). We train together and High Performance Academy in Philly. She gives me rides all the time, we play doubles together sometimes, we hit together. I’m really excited to play her this year.

SJSW: Do you have anyone you’d consider your funniest teammate?

Goculdas: I think they’re all hilarious honestly. They’re all awesome. Probably Mari (Kimenker). 

SJSW: How about a teammate you think you’d work best with as a doubles partner?

Goculdas: Hmm. I think Sunny (Doshi). Because we’ve known each other for so long, we’ve been in the same friend group, and I think our tennis skills complement each other.

Second singles player Sanjana Doshi in action during last season’s sectional championship. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

SJSW: What’s your favorite thing about Cherry Hill East?

Goculdas: I think it’s a great school because they really challenge their kids in education and extracurricular activities. And they really make sure everyone is involved and getting a great education, which is awesome. And they offer so many AP classes and so many opportunities to further your education. I’m taking business classes, which I know aren’t offered at a lot of other schools. I think it’s amazing they give kids so many opportunities and I feel like everyone comes out knowing what their interests are and what they want to do with their lives or in college. 

SJSW: What’s your favorite subject, business?

Goculdas: For sure business and I also like math, too.

SJSW: Do you have a favorite teacher?

Goculdas: I love all of my teachers, they’ve all been amazing. I definitely think teachers are important in the learning process, they really can influence how much you like a subject. I feel like every single teacher I’ve had is amazing. East has amazing faculty members.

SJSW: What’s the best thing you did this summer?

Goculdas: I went to the World Team Tennis Junior Nationals in San Diego (in July), I was captain of Middle States. Leading a team was an amazing experience. And it was all about the team, the individual results weren’t posted online, only team results. I liked that, everyone was focused on the team winning. And work has been amazing, the hands-on experience.  

Goculdas speaks with Cherry Hill East tennis coach Mary Jewett in between games. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

SJSW: What’s the best book you’ve read lately?

Goculdas: For summer reading I read “1984.” It was just very interesting, basically what would have happened if Great Britain had fallen to communism. 

SJSW: Anything on TV or a movie you’ve been into lately?

Goculdas: I love “Shark Tank,” that’s my favorite show. And “The Profit.” Marcus Lemonis and Mark Cuban are other role models (of mine) in the business world, people I’d want to follow. They’re amazing.

SJSW: Do you have any pre-match rituals?

Goculdas: I like listening to rap music, it gets me hype, excited and ready to go. I like to jump rope, stretch and all of that. And then take a minute to myself to focus and concentrate. 

SJSW: Is there one go-to song you’re into right now?

Goculdas: I like anything from J. Cole. He’s awesome.

Ryan is a veteran journalist of 20 years. He’s worked at the Courier-Post, Philadelphia Daily News, Delaware County Daily Times, primarily as a sportswriter, and is currently a sports editor at Newspaper Media Group and an adjunct journalism instructor at Rowan University.
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