NORMAL — For the second straight year, the Normal Community High School girls tennis team is sending five players to the state tournament, which begins its three-day run in Buffalo Grove on Thursday.
Five ties the most Coach Roger Juers has ever sent.
“That’s not easy to do,” he said. “The girls worked hard so they deserve it.”
Leading the way has been the Class 2A sectional championship doubles team of senior Olivia Kraft and junior Kavya Sudhir.
“They’ve had a really good year,” said Juers, who paired the two because they wanted to team up. “They seem to get along together so the combination seemed to work pretty good.”
Kraft and Sudhir own a 31-2 record with the losses coming against Champaign Centennial's Mary Woods and Madison Scaggs and Ottawa's Katie McGraw and Ellie Gallagher.
"If we didn't have that bond that we do, we'd probably have at least six or seven more losses," Kraft said. "We know exactly what we need to do."
They lost to Centennial, 8-3, and fell to O'Fallon, 7-6 (3), 6-2.
"The one against O'Fallon was a good loss, I feel, because we were playing so good," Sudhir said. "We were super close in that match. We came back from down 0-3."
Sudhir expects to feel fewer nerves than she did in last year's state tournament.
"The hard part is over," she said. "We won sectionals. This is the fun part now, getting to do what we love with really good people."
Now a four-time state qualifier, Kraft said qualifying never gets old.
"It's still just as thrilling, especially this year with Kavya," Kraft said. "Our bond is so close."
Juers said one of Kraft and Sudhir's best victories came against University High’s Abby Totten and Isabel Schaefbauer, who placed third in the 2016 Class 1A state tournament.
“We just haven’t had an opportunity to play some of the teams that we would like to play,” said Juers, noting Sudhir missed one tournament while taking the ACT exam. “She missed some matches that would have been nice to have.”
Kraft and Sudhir cause problems for opponents by staying on the move.
“Olivia is very aggressive at the net,” Juers said. “She’s always looking to move. Kavya is pretty steady at the baseline. She’s got a good backhand. They both serve pretty well.
"They are pretty well-rounded overall. They don’t have a lot of weaknesses so it’s hard to exploit what they don’t do well."
Sudhir likes the fact her coach won the 1992 state doubles title for NCHS with Johnny Lin.
"He's been through it so we value his advice a lot," she said.
Both girls also have trained with Buddy Strawn.
"He's made me the player that I am today," Kraft said.
Sudhir already laments these are Kraft's final days of high school tennis.
"There will be tears for sure during our last match, but it's been super fun to play with her," Sudhir said. "These are moments I will never forget."
A year ago, Kraft went 2-2 at state with Katie Toohill while Sudhir went 0-2 with Grace Walls. This year, the sophomore Walls qualified with senior Madison Vail. They have a 35-4 record.
“I have the privilege of having two legitimate No. 1 teams,” Juers said. “Madison and Grace, if they were on any other team in the area, they would be a No. 1 team.
“I expect them to do as well as Kavya and Olivia at state. I think they can be very dangerous. People might underestimate them.”
Kraft and Sudhir credit Vail and Walls, the sectional runners-up, for pushing them in practice.
"They are a solid team," Sudhir said. "They have gotten so much better throughout the season."
Rounding out the NCHS state contingent is junior Annika Hiredesai, who is 19-10.
“She’s a good server,” Juers said. “I’m just happy she made it to state. There was always a possibility of her making it, but I don’t think the expectation was as high for her to make it.”