WAXHAW – Like their star senior leader, the Marvin Ridge girls tennis team has made a quick recovery from a season in which they went 13-5, but failed to make the NCHSAA 3A playoffs after losing four matches in conference play.
This year, the Mavs are 11-1 after falling 7-1 in their first showdown with Charlotte Catholic – the team that handed Marvin Ridge two of its Southern Carolina Conference defeats last year and clearly the Mavs biggest rivals.
“We know Catholic is the team to beat,” Marvin Ridge coach Julie Van Olden said before the two teams met on Sept. 11. “We have a lot of respect for their program, and a lot of respect for their players but we know they have a lot of new personnel and we played them tough last year in some good matches between us.”
The Cougars have three freshmen who have cracked their top seven players, and the same can be said for Marvin Ridge, who has freshmen Avery Sager, who is 11-1 on Court 2, and Shivani Kotikalapudi, who is 6-2 on Courts 5 and 6 this season, atop their list of newcomers.
“It’s been great,” Van Olden said of the group of freshmen contributors that also includes Catherine Repke, Sophia Freeman, Amelia Augenstein and Kyndall Henderson. “The six who made the team showed the skill during our hefty tryout process when we had 21 girls trying out. They needed to show up and play and they did. It was exciting to see Avery step up and then we had Shivani Kotikalapudi step up and win the sixth spot so that was exciting. And our challenges are intense so they have earned those spots.”
While the freshmen were a combined 21-1 in singles play this season before going 0-2 against the Cougars, and have been absolutely great, perhaps the biggest reason for the Mavs 11-0 start is the return of Lehigh University commit Ella Imhoff, who is a four-star recruit ranked 11th in North Carolina in the Class of 2019 by Tennisrecruiting.net.
Imhoff suffered a knee injury just weeks before last season was set to get underway. It was a devastating loss for Van Olden and her team, and a long road back for Imhoff who has played at Court 1 since her freshman year.
She entered this season with a 21-8 career record at Court 1 for the Mavs, but this year she has come back even stronger. In addition to being a co-captain with senior Ainsley Zubrinsky and providing great leadership, Imhoff was 11-0 in singles play and 6-1 in doubles action atop the Mavs powerful lineup before being defeated 3-6, 6-2. 10-7 by Catholic ace Rose Kenny, who is the defending 3A state champion.
“She certainly provides a lot of leadership up top,” Van Olden said. “She was out our entire season last year because of her injury, but she’s worked really hard to get back. And that’s another reason why I’m so happy for her because she was able to sign with Lehigh University. With her missing her entire junior year, that’s a testament to her skill and her strength to have that happen”
With Imhoff back and Sager proving to be such a talented freshman, the other Mavs have benefited.
Zubrinsky was a perfect 11-0 this season on Courts 3 and 4 after playing Line 1 last year out of necessity but lost in a tiebreaker to Catholic’s Kaitlyn Tozzi.
Junior Sophie Imhoff is a perfect 11-0 this season but missed the Catholic match. She is alternating with Zubrinsky on 3 and 4 after playing four matches at Court 2 last season.
Sophomores Ritika Tejwani and Lauren Wilson have joined Kotikalapudi, Freeman, Repke and Henderson on Courts 5 and 6, but together they have posted a 15-4 record.
“We’re off to a great start,” Van Olden said. “We have a strong underpinning of freshmen and strong leadership at the top. That and having Ella back has given us a very big edge.”
The Mavs have other big matches later this season against 2016 4A champion Myers Park (Sept. 26) and with Weddington (Sept. 27), who also beat the Mavs twice last season.
But Marvin Ridge already extracted revenge with a 6-0 win over the Warriors on Sept. 4, and will look to do the same in the rematch with Charlotte Catholic on Oct. 4 in the regular season finale for both teams.
Van Olden is using these matches as measuring sticks and knows to defeat the Cougars even once likely ensures a playoff spot where her team can be very dangerous.
“We didn’t have Ella last year and still had great matches with Catholic, so I’m looking forward to the possibility of getting a win this year,” Van Olden said. “I’m looking forward to the fun and exciting matches and just to the good competition. I think that we’re very evenly matched. We anticipate playing them twice in the regular season and probably again in the playoffs.
“It’s been a fun season so far. Win or lose we look forward to the competition from Catholic because we like to be able to rise to the challenge and that’s what we’re ready to do.”