The Montgomery High boys’ tennis team was rarely challenged on its way to winning its first 22 matches of the season this spring.
But in two of those 22 victories, the Cougars needed to hold off a strong challenge from Newark Academy to win.
Last Friday in the championship match of the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions, Montgomery needed to hold off one last challenge from the Minutemen of Essex County.
Thanks to victories at second singles from Eric Li and third singles from Phillip Szkudlarski, as well as a victory from Andy Li and Rohit Vadodaria at first doubles, Montgomery came away with a 3-2 victory and its third straight Tournament of Champions state title at Mercer County Park in West Windsor on May 31.
The three straight state championships are the only T of C titles that Montgomery has ever won.
Newark Academy has won the most T of C state titles in New Jersey history with its 13 crowns. The Livingston school last won the T of C in 2016, the year before Montgomery's run began.
All three Montgomery victories against Newark Academy came in three sets, while the second doubles match also went three sets. In the end, the Cougars did enough to finish off a perfect 23-0 season.
“I terms of our match, we took a step up from second doubles to first doubles, so obviously the quality of play was a lot higher for us,” said Vadodaria, who had teamed with Andy Li at second doubles last year. “For the team, we have been dominant throughout the season. So we had that top dog mentality as opposed to last year where we had lost to (West Windsor-Plainsboro) South already twice in the season, so we had that underdog atmosphere going.”
A year ago, Montgomery finished 24-2 with both losses coming at the hands of West Windor-Plainsboro South.
Eventually, Montgomery would get a third shot at the Pirates and came away with a 3-2 victory in the T of C state final. This time it was Newark Academy looking to avenge a pair of regular seasons losses.
“It made us more cautious because we were in Newark’s exact same position a year ago,” Vadodaria said. “So we knew just how much they wanted it so we just had to push harder.”
Added Li: “I can’t say that it wasn’t on our minds, but we tried to push it to the back of our minds.”
Montgomery finished the season undefeated for the second time in the last three years. Vadodaria, Szkudlarski and No. 1 singles player James Hopper are all seniors. They, as well as Andy Li, were all part of last year’s championship team. The Cougars didn’t miss a beat with the three newcomers that joined the lineup, with Eric Li at second singles and the second doubles team of Drew Patel and Justin Wang.
“I think we got lucky with our newcomers,” Vadodaria said. “Eric, Drew and Justin are all really talented players and we got really lucky to have them in our district. I think the combination of the experience of the returners and the talented newcomers was a really good combination that allowed us to repeat for the third year.”
This team had something special all year, including a chemistry you don’t always see on the tennis court.
“I think an important factor about why we’re so close to each other is we’ve all know each other for such a long time,” Andy Li said. “I’ve known James since I was around 8 years old. I’ve known Rohit for just as long or longer. I’ve know Justin and Phil and Eric for such a long time.
“We lost Will (Camper) and Chris (Guo) last year so that was one doubles flight we lost. We shifted up to first doubles and then we got Justin and Drew at second and they have played great this year.”
The last three years it seems like the Cougars have been able to simply reload. They lost Camper and Guo, who won the state doubles title a year ago, as well as No. 1 singles player Ishaan Ravichander.
“I remember in middle school, I was freaking out about barely making JV because I knew that Montgomery had a good reputation as a tennis program,” Vadodaria said. “Comparing then to now it is hard to imagine that four years ago I was freaking out that I would even make JV. And now here I am helping my team win not one state title, but two.
“It was interesting to see that difference in mentality and how much I have grown over these four years. And it is really thanks to this program and (head coach Raheel) Saleem and (assistant coach Matt) Pogue and all of my teammates who have been there right by me.”
Vadodaria and Andy Li have are prime examples of players doing what needs to be done for the team to be successful. Both players are certainly capable of being strong singles players. But for the Cougars, they have settled in and become a dominant doubles team.
“I have always enjoyed doubles a lot more than singles,” Vadodaria said. “I feel like it is a lot more fun to play and there is so much more technique involved in my mind. I enjoy doubles and it is a lot of fun to have someone out there on the court with you that you can win and lose with together.
“I think Andy and I together are a really good example of what a team should be. We’re always lifting each other up. I think that applies to our entire team. We always try to stay positive with each other. We try to keep things light and fun and upbeat.”
The two lost just on doubles match last year, which was in the state doubles final to their teammates, Camper and Guo. This year they took an undefeated record into the state doubles quarterfinals.
“We feel like we’re a great pair because even before high school tennis we had been playing tournaments together for about the last nine years,” Andy Li said. “So we feel there is this chemistry we have that a lot of other doubles pairs don’t have. We feel like that is a big advantage for us.
“Over the years we have learned how each other plays and we have adjusted our own style to coordinate with theirs. I have mainly been a singles player for most of my tennis career. But playing with this guy, it has been an incredible journey.”
An incredible journey seems like just the right description of the last three years for the Montgomery tennis program, which just keeps rolling along.