When the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association announced last year that changes to the state tennis tournament were coming this spring, Marriotts Ridge’s Veronica Cuellar knew her road to winning a state title was about to become much easier.
She placed fourth last year in girls singles and was the top Class 2A finisher in a bracket that has largely been dominated by the 4A competitors from Montgomery County. Entering her senior campaign, she became the player to beat in 2A, no matter which discipline she was going to play.
Knowing a state title would be easier to attain would excite many athletes, but not Cuellar. She was upset. She could no longer prove to the entire state that she was the best it had to offer.
Marriotts Ridge coach Scott Dingman recalls a conversation he had with Cuellar after she had lost the semifinal and consolation finals matches at the state tournament last year. The topic of separating the state tournament into four classifications came up.
“I made the comment of something along the lines of, ‘Well, that just means you have a better chance to win next year,’ and she was mad. She was upset,” Dingman said. “She said, ‘I want a chance to beat the best.’ She’s just always had that thought of, ‘What can I improve?’ She was not content. She has the drive to push it and do more.”
Cuellar remembers the disappointment she felt when the news came down, too.
“The people that are in, for example, Montgomery County schools, they’re some of the top players in the state and playing against them is a lot of fun because I get to see how much better I’ve gotten, how good I actually am,” said Cuellar, who won a state title in girls doubles as a sophomore and is the Howard County Times/Columbia Flier girls tennis Player of the Year for the third straight season. “It did disappoint me.”
While the state tournament format changed, Cuellar’s goals did not: to get better and win matches — individually and as a team. She checked off all the boxes this spring. Dingman and Cuellar noticed significant growth in her game and the results showed as much.
“I think my consistency overall definitely grew. My serve got better, it got a little bigger, and I was able to place it a little more,” Cuellar said. “My ground strokes, I feel like they got a lot better, and overall my game in comparison to my freshman year, I’ve matured a lot and my game has reflected that.”
Said Dingman: “She was serving the ball a little heavier, a little deeper, a little more precise with her locations and making less errors. Just all in all, I think her serve was definitely something that improved quite a bit. She had the placement, she had the spin and very few errors.”
During the regular season, she went 11-0 playing No. 1 singles, 4-0 playing No. 1 doubles, and in the postseason she and senior Stephen Alam made a dominating mixed doubles team that won all nine matches it played in straight sets en route to sweeping the county, 2A South and 2A state tournaments. In fact, the duo won 108 games and lost just 28 during their dominant playoff run.
“It was so much fun. Playing with Stephen, I was really hoping that would happen. I was so excited when coach told us that we were playing together and playing with him was an absolute blast,” Cuellar said. “I don’t even know how to describe it. In some ways it felt like I was playing doubles again with Abby [Thornton] because we were able to understand each other to the point where sometimes I wouldn’t even have to talk to him and he’d be like, ‘I know, I know what I have to do’ just by looking at him. It was just a lot of fun.”
For her career, Cuellar led the Mustangs girls team to four county regular season titles, three Howard County Cup titles, and four region crowns. Under the new state format, Marriotts Ridge captured the first 2A state team crown this spring as well.
“It was four years that I am definitely going to remember,” Cuellar said. “I made so many friends and I feel like every year I got better and better. It was just a lot of fun to be a part of a team and to do something like that.”
Cuellar can also look back and find positives from her losses at the state tournament last year. A coach at Salisbury University was impressed with her play in the semifinals against Severna Park’s Abby Moghtader and three days later emailed Cuellar to gauge her interest in playing tennis there.
She loved her visit there, did an overnight with the girls tennis team and soon after committed. Cuellar plans to study exercise science with a specific allied sports track.
“I get to play tennis, do what I love and I get to learn something that I am really interested in,” she said. “I’m really excited.”
Also named to the All-County team:
Defne Demirekler, River Hill, freshman
Demirekler made an immediate impact as a freshman for the Hawks. She went 7-0 playing No. 1 singles and 4-1 at No. 1 doubles in the regular season. She teamed up with Kartik Dupta and created a formidable mixed doubles team that placed third at the county tournament and second at the region and state tournaments, falling only to Marriotts Ridge’s state champions Veronica Cuellar and Stephen Alam.
Maanasa Gurram, River Hill, senior
Gurram went 2-3 playing No. 1 singles in the regular season but was a perfect 6-0 in No. 1 doubles. Paired with Siri Jale in the postseason, the duo reached the semifinals of the county tournament en route to a third-place finish but bounced back to win the 2A South region title. Their run continued at the state tournament, where they won their first two matches in straight sets before falling to a team from Liberty in the finals.
Rose Huang, Centennial, freshman
Huang was one of the Eagles top players from start to finish this spring. During the regular season, she went 13-0 in No. 1 singles and placed second at the county tournament in the discipline. She rebounded to win three straight matches in straight sets to win the 3A East region title, and at the state tournament she lost to the eventual state champion in the semifinals before winning the consolation match in a tiebreak to finish third.
Abby Jackson, Centennial, senior
Jackson, paired with Shreya Vallimanalan the duration of the season, went 9-3 during the regular season as a No. 1 doubles pair and were even better in the postseason. The duo raced through the county tournament as the third seed, beating River Hill’s Maanasa Gurram and Siri Jale in a long tiebreaker and then top-seeded Marriotts Ridge’s pair of Avani Badugu and Savana Owens in the final. They carried that success into a 3A East region title and a state finals-appearance, where they fell to a Northern duo in a tiebreak.
Siri Jale, River Hill, sophomore
Jale played No. 1 doubles during the regular season and went 12-1 overall for the Hawks. Paired with Maanasa Gurram in the postseason, the duo reached the semifinals of the county tournament en route to a third-place finish before bouncing back to win the 2A South region title. Their run continued at the state tournament, where they won their first two matches in straight sets before falling to a Liberty team in the finals.
Laura Littlefield, Glenelg Country, senior
In the Dragons’ first season in the A Conference of the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland, Littlefield went 5-1 during the regular season and in the playoffs reached the championship match in No. 1 girls singles. The All-Conference selection helped Glenelg Country win three straight B Conference titles while winning a pair of individual conference titles as a sophomore and junior in No. 1 singles, which she played all four years. She is committed to play at Bates College in Maine.
Kallista Liu, Marriotts Ridge, freshman
Liu was one of the top freshmen in the county this spring and went undefeated in the regular season, going 1-0 in No. 1 singles, 7-0 in No. 2 singles and 3-0 in No. 2 doubles. She excelled in the postseason, however, and dropped just one game overall to win the county tournament easily. She followed with another title at the 2A South region tournament and reached the state finals after a winning the tiebreak in the semifinals. She lost the championship match to Rani Jones of Oakdale.
Olivia Tsai, Centennial, junior
Tsai more than held her own in the regular season, finishing with a 9-0 record in No. 2 singles and 3-0 mark in various doubles matches, and success followed her into the postseason. She teamed up with Christopher Chen in mixed doubles and reached the county finals with two straight-set victories, and at the 3A East regional tournament the duo finished second again. At the 3A state tournament, they lost the semifinal in a tiebreaker but bounced back to finish in third place.
Shreya Vallimanalan, Centennial, sophomore
Vallimanalan, paired with Abby Jackson the duration of the season, went 9-3 during the regular season as a No. 1 doubles pair and were even better in the postseason. The duo raced through the county tournament as the third seed, beating River Hill’s Maanasa Gurram and Siri Jale in a long tiebreaker and then top-seeded Marriotts Ridge’s pair of Avani Badugu and Savana Owens in the final. They carried that success into a 3A East region title and a state finals-appearance, where they fell to a Northern duo in a tiebreak.