Centennial’s Ho, Tsai, Marriotts Ridge’s Cuellar place at tennis state tournament

Centennial’s Olivia Tsai returns a shot while teammate Peter Ho prepares himself at the net during a mixed doubles consolation match against Bowie during the state tennis championships played at the Wilde Lake Tennis Club in Columbia on Saturday, May 26, 2018. (Doug Kapustin / for Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Facing a one-set deficit and the intense heat at the MPSSAA state tennis tournament at Wilde Lake Tennis Club on Saturday morning, Centennial senior Peter Ho and sophomore Olivia Tsai rose to the occasion.

The mixed doubles duo looked out of sorts and was crushed in the first set by Bowie’s Martial Ddamba-Kawunde and Mackenzie Jones but ultimately wouldn’t be denied. They returned the favor and rolled through the second set before winning the third in a tiebreak for a 1-6, 6-1, 7-6 (7-4) victory to place third in the state.

“It was pretty tough because that was our second third-set [match] in a row on the day,” Ho said. “We were both pretty tired even going into that match but we kept telling ourselves to keep grinding and try to do our best to win.

“It’s great. We didn’t have too many expectations coming in. Olivia lost in the first round last year, I lost in the first round the last two years, so we were just hoping to do our best and maybe win a match. So finishing third is really awesome.”

Like Ho and Tsai, Marriotts Ridge junior Veronica Cuellar, last year’s Howard County Times girls tennis Co-Player of the Year, also reached the semifinal in girls’ singles after winning a state championship in girls doubles a year ago. She lost a close match to Severna Park’s Abby Moghtader, 7-6 (7-4), 6-4, in that round before falling to South River’s Vanessa Mellynchuk, 6-0, 6-0, in the consolation finals to place fourth.

No other county tennis players reached the second day of the tournament.

Ho and Tsai, seeded third, won their first two matches easily in straight sets to advance to the semifinals. They got off to a hot start there against Severna Park’s Miriam Moghtader and Matthew Kilchenstein, and won the first set, 6-0, but couldn’t hold on to the lead. The Falcons pair won the final two sets, 6-1, 6-3, to advance.

Ho and Tsai struggled again in the first set of their consolation final before settling in and wearing down Ddamba-Kawunde and Jones.

“It’s a lot of hard work, especially because you have to sort of reset yourself and remind yourself that it’s another set and you have to just push through,” Tsai said.

Ho and Tsai, who also swept the county and regional tournaments, only started playing together competitively just before the postseason because mixed doubles isn’t one of the disciplines in the regular season. But Eagles coach Erin Parisi said she was confident they would be a good team when combining Ho’s experience and Tsai’s skill.

“The partnership of experience and skill just kind of came together and they just really kind of meshed well, and communication was really good between them,” she said. “They played really well. … They fought really hard here today and I’m really proud of them.”

Meanwhile, Cuellar, who was also seeded third, raced through her first two matches, 6-0, 6-3, and then 6-1, 6-1. She was a break away from winning the first set against Moghtader in the semifinals but fell just short, and in the consolation final, Cuellar said her opponent simply outplayed her and deserved the victory.

“I’m not satisfied, I really wanted to win, but the girls, they played amazing,” she said. “I played as hard as I could and I thought I did well, so hopefully next year I do better.”

Cuellar had to overcome her first real adversity in two years at the regional tournament. She lost the county championship match to Long Reach’s Snigdha Puram in three sets but avenged the defeat in the region final and won in straight sets.

“I gained a lot of confidence from that,” Cuellar said. “I believe I was 100 percent ready for states and 100 percent ready to win.”

Entering the season, Mustangs coach Scott Dingman knew Cuellar would have to take on the leadership role that was previously held by former teammate Abby Thornton, a three-time Howard County Times girls tennis Player of the Year. He said she cherished that role, and as a result the Marriotts Ridge girls team went undefeated for the third straight year and won its fifth straight county championship. Dingman said Cuellar’s season was “a huge success.”

“She really stepped into her own this year, and from all aspects she’s been working really hard this year,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of growth already just in the postseason, starting with her rebound against Snigdha in the regional finals, and she was able to apply that here in the first two rounds. She was phenomenal.”

The Mustangs girls’ doubles team of Savana Owens and Avani Badugu, who won the regional crown, won their opening match, 6-2, 6-4, against Easton’s Anna Ewing and Allison Cherwien before falling in the second round in straight sets to the eventual champions, Annie Dong and Ellie Esterowitz of Wootton. County champions Kailey Caroland and Alyssa Boryachinskiy of Howard dropped their first match, 6-1, 6-2, to eventual finalists Brooke Santoriello and Meadow Santoriello of Patterson Mill.

Two-time boys singles county and regional champion Ram Kotnana of Centennial went 1-1. He beat Broadneck’s Gavin Reagle, 6-0, 6-3, before losing to three-time state champion Joseph Brailovsky of Wootton, 6-0, 6-2. Hammond’s Origen Grear lost his opening match, 6-0, 6-1, to Broadneck finalist Finn Garner.

Boys’ doubles county and regional champions Alex Nazaire and Michael Kimack were seeded third but were swept in the first round. They lost to eventual champions Justin Song and Arno Babcock of Richard Montgomery, 6-1, 6-1. River Hill’s Zayd Khan and Kevin Liang won their first match, 6-4, 6-4, but lost in the second round to Whitman’s Kevan Nathani and Zach Rosen, 6-3, 6-0.

In girls’ singles, Puram lost to Hereford’s Zoe Hsieh, 6-4, 6-1, in the first round.

Centennial’s Summer Shen and Christopher Chen fell to Kent Island’s Abby Carpenter and Kyle Allewalt, 6-1, 6-3, in the first round of mixed doubles.

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