HOWARD COUNTY, MD — Marriotts Ridge junior Veronica Cuellar didn’t even make it home after her first day of tennis practice this spring before texting her best friend and former doubles partner, Abby Thornton.
“I texted her like five minutes after and was like, ‘Where were you? I miss you!’ It was the weirdest thing ever,” Cuellar said. “I think the first or second match I played doubles, and it felt really weird having a different doubles partner. Not that I don’t love playing with the other girls, just in comparison to last year it was really different.”
It’s hard to fault Cuellar for missing Thornton. The duo was inseparable last year on and off the court, and between the lines the 2017 Howard County Times/Columbia Flier Co-Players of the Year were the first Mustangs to win a state title when they rolled through the postseason together playing girls doubles.
“It’s different because I would see her every single day at school and at tennis,” said Cuellar, this year’s Howard County Times/Columbia Flier girls tennis Player of the Year. “She would be one of those people on the team who would warm up with me, play a match with me. She was everywhere. She was helping me out with what to do.”
Mustangs coach Scott Dingman saw how close Cuellar and Thornton became over their two years together. But he also saw all the qualities that make for a good captain and team leader in Cuellar, and before the season they met to discuss how her role on the squad would be different then previous years.
Cuellar was prepared and accepted the challenge. She had conversations with Thornton in the offseason and Cuellar picked her brain about what it takes to be a good leader and captain. Thornton’s message to her was to keep the team close.
“We talked about essentially what it takes to become a leader and a lot of them are obviously qualities that she already exudes,” Dingman said. “The hardest thing I think for her or anybody in that scenario is that you can’t always be somebody’s best friend. ... In order to get the most out of everybody around you, sometimes you have to push some of the fun into the background a little bit and focus on working hard.”
Cuellar adjusted to her new role well, and even without Thornton she and the girls team excelled once again.
Cuellar went undefeated during the regular season playing about half her matches in singles and half in doubles, and as a result the girls team also capped its third straight undefeated campaign. Marriotts Ridge also won the County Cup for the second time in three years by beating Centennial by a half a point.
“We’ve become more of a family than a team,” Cuellar said.
Just about everything over the course of almost two years had gone according to Cuellar’s plan. But that all changed this postseason, when she lost her first match since the postseason during her freshman year in the girls singles county championship match.
Seeded first, Cuellar rolled into the finals with three straight-set victories during which she lost just two games, but she struggled in the finals against Long Reach senior Snigdha Puram, a two-time county finalist.
They split the first two sets to force a deciding third set, and it was Puram who finally broke through and won her first county title while handing Cuellar her first defeat in nearly two years.
“I learned a lot from it,” Cuellar said. “It helped me in order to beat her next time in regionals.”
Cuellar got her shot at revenge less than a week later at the District V tournament. She dominated from the start and won the rematch, 6-0, 6-4.
Cuellar explained the adjustments she made for the second meeting — hitting more topspin, loopy balls as deep as she could and getting more opportunities to finish at the net — but Dingman thought the biggest obstacle she had to overcome wasn’t her technique or her style of play but her mental fortitude.
“I think it was more a mental hurdle than anything else,” Dingman said. “It was all about game plan and strategy for her. She had to believe that she could do it. It was about having the self-confidence and the realization that she could do it.”
Her confident play continued into the state tournament, where she was seeded third in the 16-player bracket. She won her first two matches, 6-0, 6-3 and 6-1, 6-1, before facing Severna Park’s Abby Moghtader, an opponent who defeated Cuellar handily in an offseason tournament, in the semifinals. Although Cuellar lost to Maghtader, 7-6 (7-4), 6-4, and then fell in the consolation finals, 6-0, 6-0, to finish fourth, the end result was evidence that she has continued to improve.
“I played Abby before and it wasn’t close at all, so having gotten to a tiebreak and then 4-6, to me it shows that I worked hard and that I was able to improve a lot,” Cuellar said. “I know who I want to beat next year.”
Unfortunately for Cuellar, she likely won’t get her chance to take down Moghtader next year. The MPSSAA is adopting a four-classification format for the 2019 state tournament, and with Severna Park in 4A and Marriotts Ridge in 2A, a rematch won’t happen in the postseason.
Dingman recalls Cuellar was “visibly upset” by the news because she won’t get to face the toughest competition in Montgomery or Anne Arundel counties on the biggest stage.
“She was like, ‘I want to play [the best]. I want to play them and beat them. I want to play the best and beat the best.’ She’s not looking for the easy road or the easy way out,” he said. “She wants to continue to challenge herself and be the best that she can be.”
Also named to the All-County team:
Anna Artazova, River Hill, junior.
The defending girls singles county champion was hobbled by a knee injury this spring but still managed to find her way to the county finals. She teamed up with Kartik Gupta and won three matches in straight sets to reach the championship in mixed doubles, where they fell to Centennial’s Peter Ho and Olivia Tsai. She did not compete at the regional tournament.
Avani Badugu, Marriotts Ridge, junior.
Badugu was part of a doubles team with Savana Owens that lost just twice during the regular season and then reached the county finals with three straight wins. They lost to Howard’s Alyssa Boryachinskiy and Kailey Carolond, 6-2, 6-2, in the championship but bounced back less than a week later and beat the Lions’ duo, 6-4, 6-3, in the regional tournament finals. Badugu and Owens went 1-1 at the state tournament.
Alyssa Boryachinskiy, Howard, senior.
An All-County selection for the fourth consecutive year, Boryachinskiy teamed up with Kailey Caroland to compete in girls doubles together for the third straight season. The returning county finalists were a dominant team in the regular season, and in the postseason they won the county tournament with a 6-2, 6-2 victory over Marriotts Ridge’s Avani Badugu and Savana Owens and then placed second at the regional tournament. They went 0-1 at the state tournament.
Kailey Caroland, Howard, senior.
Caroland teamed up with Alyssa Boryachinskiy to compete in girls doubles together for the third straight season. The returning county finalists and 2016 champions were a dominant team in the regular season, and in the postseason they won the county tournament with a 6-2, 6-2 victory over Marriotts Ridge’s Avani Badugu and Savana Owens and then placed second at the regional tournament. They went 0-1 at the state tournament.
Savana Owens, Marriotts Ridge, junior.
Owens was part of a doubles team with Avani Badugu that lost just twice during the regular season and then reached the county finals with three straight wins. They lost to Howard’s Alyssa Boryachinskiy and Kailey Carolond, 6-2, 6-2, in the championship but bounced back less than a week later and beat the Lions’ duo, 6-4, 6-3, in the regional tournament finals. Owens and Badugu went 1-1 at the state tournament.
Snigdha Puram, Long Reach, senior.
The two-time county finalist in girls singles broke through this spring to win her first county championship with a 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 victory over Player of the Year Veronica Cuellar of Marriotts Ridge. She finished second to Cuellar at the regional tournament and went 0-1 at the state tournament.
Ashna Sandoze, Marriotts Ridge, sophomore.
Sandoze won double-digit matches playing No. 1 or 2 singles during the regular season for the county champion Mustangs. In the postseason, she was seeded third in girls singles and reached the semifinals before falling to Long Reach’s Snigdha Puram and placing third. She placed third again at the regional tournament.
Olivia Tsai, Centennial, sophomore.
A returning county champion in mixed doubles, Tsai played mixed doubles again in the postseason this spring. She teamed up with Peter Ho, and the duo rolled through the bracket to win the county tournament. They won the regional tournament before reaching the semifinals at the state tournament. The No. 3 seed then won a three-set match in the consolation finals to finish third, the highest for any county participants.