After securing the final point of their 7-6, 6-3 win over Tuscarora's Nathan Homon and Luke Shuck in the boys doubles state championship match Saturday afternoon at the University of Maryland, River Hill's Nicholas Zhu and Prateek Swamykumar calmly walked to the center of the court and exchanged a quick handshake.
The understated celebration would have seemed reserved for a single point in the state championship match, let alone the clincher in Howard County's first boys doubles championship in almost 30 years.
"I think that actually helps them in their play to be more steady throughout the match," coach Jenn Stoker said. "Matches tend to fluctuate but their behavior and attitude on the court is so steady that it helps carry them through those tough times."
Zhu, a junior, said that part of the reason his reaction to winning was so relaxed was that victory was the assumed result.
"We put a lot of time into this so it was expected," said Zhu, a junior who played No. 1 singles for River Hill as a freshman and placed third in boys doubles at the county and region tournaments last year. "(Homon and Shuck) were very consistent from the baseline and they could make a lot of shots, so we decided to be very aggressive at the net because we think that's where we're going to get most of our points."
Swamykumar, a freshman, played singles all season before teaming up with Zhu for one match at the end of the regular season "just to get ready for countys," he said.
The duo cruised to county and regional titles, and wasn't seriously challenged until a three-set win over Whitman's Sean Ngo and Lucas Schoch in the state semifinals on Saturday morning.
Ngo won state titles with Aries Wong, this year's boys singles champion, in 2011 and 2012.
"Our semifinals match, the first seed, they were very good players," Zhu said. "We just fought hard and scrambled for every point and we pulled it off."
Then, in the championship match, the two teams battled to a first-set tiebreaker, which River Hill won 7-4.
"It gave us a boost of confidence," Swamykumar said. "Once we finished that set we knew that we could do it again."
Swamykumar and Zhu had played doubles together before in junior league play, an experience that Stoker says made the decision to play doubles this spring an easy one.
"Both of them are very strong players, so either way they could have held their own. But I think both of them saw their chances put together as a team to be even better than in singles," she said. "They play doubles on their own in the winter with their junior teams and both of them enjoy doubles maybe a little better than singles, because there's less pressure and maybe its a little more of a relaxed atmosphere ... This proves that it was a good decision ... I really thought they could do it as long as they kept their heads on."
The last Howard County boys doubles team to win a state championship was Wilde Lake's Vince Lascosas and Jeremy Loomis, in 1985. River Hill's Kristin Manglitz and Devon Humphries won a girls doubles title in 2000, and Audrey Cheng and Nathan Huber won a mixed doubles title in 2010 for the Hawks' only other state tennis championships.
Howard County's only other representative on the second day of the tournament was Marriotts Ridge freshman Abby Thornton, who lost to Wootton's Miranda Deng, the eventual champion, in the semifinals, and Randallstown's Asmara Rose in three sets in the consolation finals.
"My expectations were just to play my game, try my best, and whatever happens happens," said Thornton, who has played against both Deng and Rose in USTA competition, with mixed results. "I would have liked to win (third place) but she's a good player and fought insanely hard. It's all right, it was a tough battle."
Coach Scott Dingman said that the elevation in competition from the regular season, to the postseason, to the state tournament was a positive experience for Thornton, the county and regional champion.
"For her to be with her teammates all the time and ride the bus and have some fun while still being able to keep her play at a high level was a good experience for her," he said. "There are always things to work on no matter who you are, so we're going to continue to try to get better."
Last year, Atholton freshman Irene Lu defeated Atholton sophomore Victoria Kogan for the girls state championship, but both players decided to not compete in high school this spring.