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Centennial junior Ram Kotnana comes back as boys tennis Player of the Year

Centennial junior Ram Kotnana comes back as boys tennis Player of the Year
Centennial junior Ram Kotnana is this year's Howard County boys tennis Player of the Year after winning county and regional titles in singles. (Jen Rynda / BSMG staff)

Ask most tennis players and they will say that while the physical part of the game can be exhausting, the mental side can be even more grueling.

That was especially true for Centennial junior Ram Kotnana, a gifted athlete with the build, length and size molded for a tennis player. His physical ability has always been one of his strengths, but his mental game faltered at times when he needed it most. In many cases, it cost him victories.

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It is also why his county championship performance on May 16 meant so much to him. He had spent the last year away from the high school circuit playing United State Tennis Association tournaments to build his game and focus on improving his confidence, and after losing a tight first set to River Hill senior Prateek Swamykumar in the final, it was time for Kotnana to put his improved mental skills to the test.

"I'm capable of more. If I'm playing scared I can't play to my full potential," Kotnana said. "But when I'm aggressive, I'm focused, I can play the tennis that I usually can play."

Kotnana battled back to win the second set, 6-4, and then the third set, 6-3, to capture his first county title that afternoon in Columbia. Several days later he followed with a much more controlling victory over Swamykumar in the regional final, this time winning, 6-1, 6-1.

Eagles coach Erin Parisi said his ability to overcome the highs and lows in the middle of the match was something Kotnana likely wouldn't have been able to do his freshman season, when he lost to Atholton's Matt Sklar in the county and regional final.

But this year's Howard County Times/Columbia Flier boys tennis Player of the Year has grown into his own.

"I think mental toughness is something that is extremely important. At times you can have the physical ability, but if you can't keep it together mentally then it doesn't really matter. When you can stay mentally tough and can calm yourself down and do what you need to do and focus on that, even when things aren't working well for you ... knowing how to identify the things you need to fix and adapting to that certainly helps," said Parisi. "I think his freshman year that would have been a much harder thing for him to do. Improving mentally and your weaknesses is something even professionals struggle with at times."

Kotnana burst onto the scene as a talented but raw freshman. He helped the Eagles win the boys regular season county championship and the County Cup, and he rolled into the singles county final for a shot at Sklar, the defending county champion.

Kotnana won the first set and lost the second, but in a winner-take-all tiebreak in the third, the more experienced player prevailed, 7-5. The two squared off again in the regional finals, where Kotnana again won the first set before Sklar won the next two and another title. Kotnana went on to go 1-1 at the state tournament, which was his last high school tournament until this spring.

"Coming into my freshman year, I was overconfident in myself. I didn't take Matt seriously," he said. "He showed me that I can't just go onto the court expecting to win without preparing yourself. I can't expect to win without putting in enough work."

Kotnana decided after that year that he needed to spend more time playing tough competition and work on his game — the mental side more than anything. So he spent last spring and summer testing himself against the best there is to offer in the USTA circuit.

"I took the year off to work on my USTA ranking and to build up my confidence more. I'm still working on the mental side; I'm pretty weak, so I need to keep working on that still so I can reach new levels," he said. "For me, it was college tennis. I want to play Division-I tennis. There's not a lot of competition at the county level, except a handful of guys. I have to get good matches in and I can't just play easy matches. I have to battle hard and play tough opponents so I can gain confidence in myself and my abilities. That year off really helped me with that."

Parisi noticed from Day 1 this spring that Kotnana had matured in all facets on and off the court. He developed a more consistent serve, one he says wasn't reliable two years ago, and a better backhand and overall better footwork.

It translated into the team success as well, as the Eagles went 14-0 in the regular season and won the County Cup for the second time in three years. Kotnana also went undefeated in the regular season.

"Overall as an individual he matured. He's trying to not let things bother him," Parisi said. "He showed a lot of understanding of other players and that they're out there to have fun and enjoy the game as much as possible. I feel like his maturity level really changed."

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As much success as he had at the county and regional level, Kotnana had a disappointing result at the state tournament. He trailed Hereford's Adrian Charchalis, 6-3, 4-1, before retiring in the second set because of a hip injury.

Kotnana says he is friends with Charchalis and the pair have faced each other numerous times with Kotnana coming out on top each time.

"I didn't stretch, I didn't prepare, I didn't sleep enough. I guess it showed on the court when I had to retire," he said. "Something was wrong with my hip and I couldn't step into my forehand. ... He deserved to win."

Like the hurdles he faced in the past, Kotnana hopes to use his state tournament result as motivation going forward. He said he plans to work on his preparation and staying at an even keel through the good and the bad. Ultimately, he is preparing for a state championship run next year.

"I'm going to be playing a lot of tournaments this summer and I want to get better in everything. Mentally, physically, I need to work on some little things like strategy and hopefully I can take states next year," he said. "I will need to be able to beat a lot of good players and be able to stand my ground against them. I can't let them overpower me and I plan to train to be able to do that."

Also named to the all-county team:

Stephen Alam, Marriotts Ridge, sophomore.

After winning a boys' doubles title last spring, Alam moved to singles this postseason and is garnering all-county honors for the second time. He was seeded second at the county tournament and rallied back to finish third after falling to River Hill's Prateek Swamykumar in the semifinal. He finished third again at the regional tournament a week later.

Peter Ho, Centennial, junior.

Ho, an all-county selection for the second straight year, placed second at the county and regional tournaments in boys doubles last spring and this season he paired with William Liu to again finish runner-up at the two postseason tournaments to Reece Maiden and Shawn Witschen of Glenelg. Ho and Lio lost to the top-seeded team in straight sets in the first round at the state tournament.

Michael Kimack, Mt. Hebron, sophomore.

Kimack moved from singles, where he took fourth and third at the county and regional tournaments last year, to mixed doubles and paired with senior Tess Weber. The duo lost to Centennial's Olivia Tsai and Andy Tseng in the county final but avenged that defeat in the final of the regional tournament. They kept the momentum into the state tournament, where they won three straight matches to reach the final and eventually finish second.

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William Liu, Centennial, senior.

Liu transitioned from singles to doubles this spring and teamed up with Peter Ho to help the Eagles go undefeated in the regular season and win the County Cup. The duo finished second to Reece Maiden and Shawn Witschen of Glenelg at the county and regional tournaments before losing to the No. 1 seed in the opening round at the state tournament.

Reece Maiden, Glenelg, senior.

Maiden teamed up with Shawn Witschen for the second straight year and the senior duo made for one of the top doubles teams in the area. They rolled past Centennial's William Liu and Peter Ho, 6-2, 6-2, to win their first county title and then beat the Eagles team again, 6-2, 6-1, in the regional final. They were seeded third at the state tournament, where they won their first-round match before falling in the quarterfinals.

Prateek Swamykumar, River Hill, senior.

A four-time all-county selection, Swamykumar did a little bit of everything for the Hawks. He won a boys' doubles state title in 2014 and last year placed second at the county and regional tournaments in mixed doubles. This spring, he moved to boys singles, where he fell to Player of the Year Ram Kotnana of Centennial in the final of the county and regional tournaments. He won his first match at the state tournament before falling in the quarterfinal.

Andy Tseng, Centennial, senior.

Tseng helped the Eagles to an undefeated regular season and then to the County Cup title after partnering with freshman Olivia Tsai in mixed doubles this postseason. The pair knocked off the top-seeded team of Tess Weber and Michael Kimack of Mt. Hebron, 7-6 (7-4), 6-2, in the final of the county tournament. The Vikings got revenge in the final of the regional tournament and Tsai and Tseng lost in three sets in their first match at the state tournament.

Shawn Witschen, Glenelg, senior.

Witschen had another stellar postseason this spring after helping the Gladiators win 14 regular season matches. He and Reece Maiden teamed up for the second straight year and they rolled past Centennial's William Liu and Peter Ho, 6-2, 6-2, to win their first county title. They beat the Eagles team again, 6-2, 6-1, in the regional final to win for a second straight season, but they went 1-1 at the state tournament after being seeded third.

Boys Tennis 2017 All-County Team

Player of the Year

Ram Kotnana, Centennial, junior

First Team

Stephen Alam, Marriotts Ridge, sophomore

Peter Ho, Centennial, junior

Michael Kimack, Mt. Hebron, sophomore

William Liu, Centennial, senior

Reece Maiden, Glenelg, senior

Prateek Swamykumar, River Hill, senior

Andy Tseng, Centennial, senior

Shawn Witschen, Glenelg, senior

Fan's Choice Player of the Year

Michael Kimack, Mt. Hebron, sophomore

MIAA B Conference All-Stars

Arthur Nissen, Glenelg Country, junior

Final standings

Centennial*, 14-0

River Hill**, 15-2

Glenelg, 14-3

Marriotts Ridge, 12-4

Howard, 10-7

Mt. Hebron, 8-7

Atholton, 7-8

Reservoir, 7-9

Hammond, 4-11

Long Reach, 2-14

Oakland Mills, 2-15

Wilde Lake, 1-16

Glenelg Country, 1-6

*County champion, Howard County Cup champion

**Region V champion

%Plays in MIAA B Conference

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