With more than two dozen of her teammates watching, including the girls who will compete to jump into the vacant varsity spots next summer, Mari Kimenker reset herself mentally.
She may have been down 5-2 in the second set of her second singles match in the South Jersey Group 4 championship against Lenape, but she wasn’t out.
And she had been in a somewhat similar situation in the semifinal round, dropping the first set, 6-0, and trailing in the second, 5-1, against Freehold Township. Kimenker rallied to take that second set less than a week earlier.
She knew she could do it again.
“I’m a natural procrastinator and sometimes that comes to my demise,” the Cherry Hill East senior said with a laugh. “It’s not on purpose. Under pressure, something happens where I reach a level of play that I wasn’t reaching earlier in the match.”
Kimenker once again rallied, taking the second set 7-5, sending East to a 5-0 win and setting off the celebration on the Cougars home court. For the 18th time in the last 21 seasons under coach Mary Jewett, Cherry Hill East’s girls tennis team was crowned South Jersey Group 4 champions.
The sectional title win was an important one for the departing seniors. Five of East’s seven starters will graduate this June and turn the reins of the program over to the girls who cheered them on Tuesday.
“As freshmen we had very strong (upperclassmen) and we were able to follow their example,” said fellow senior Sanjana Doshi, who played second doubles with Kimenker when the Cougars won the same sectional title in their freshman season. “So I think it’s been a constant thing, it’s our legacy and we wanted to just keep it going.”
“I feel like all of us took leadership roles,” added senior and fellow four-year starter Pallavi Goculdas, “and made sure we’d motivate the team.”
Upholding a legacy as rich as East’s tennis success could be seen as stressful for high school athletes. But the Cougars are as mentally strong as they are talented.
“Pressure is a privilege — that’s a Billy Jean King quote, and I think it’s so true,” Doshi said. “I think we’ve all felt people relying on us. All of the girls below us look up to us and we want to set an example. Five of us are graduating, so it’s a huge thing.”
Doshi, Goculdas, Kimenker, Michaela Kennedy and Naomi Korn will begin new journeys next fall, but the impact they made on the program won’t be forgotten.
“Their hearts, every one of them plays with such heart,” Jewett said of what she’d miss the most. “They’ll do anything in practice, they do what they’re told, they buy into the psychological stuff, the mind-body connection. You could see that today with Mari.”
Everyone saw it, including the two dozen girls who will try to make it 19 out of 22 South Jersey championships in 2020.