Coach Shari Schleifman paid her Robbinsville High tennis team the ultimate compliment.
“We are,” she said, “a working class team.”
To some that may sound like a way to say a team is not that good, but it tries hard. That could not be further from the truth, especially in this case. The fact is, no matter if the team is good, bad, in-between or any other kind of a level; a working class group gets the absolute most out of the ability it has.
That is what the Ravens do. The fact they have talent led to the first NJSIAA Central Jersey Group II boys tennis sectional title in school history last year, and provided a 5-1 start to this season.
After giving talented West Windsor-North all it could handle in a 3-2 opening-day loss, Robbinsville won its next five by 5-0 counts.
And it grinded every step of the way, whether the opponent was good or bad.
“We’re not gonna be the team that goes out and just wins,” Schleifman said. “They work for it, they practice real hard. They fight and they’re very coachable. If you talk to them about something you see is wrong, you can get it fixed. They’re hard workers and they’re gonna make you work.”
Sophomore first singles player Casey Knipe is the poster boy for that attitude, and whole-heartedly agrees with it.
“Of course, it’s always a trait,” Knipe said. “Us Ravens are always tenacious, no matter what it is, on and off the court. With that spirit we have to offer, it honestly brought us closer to more victories and closer off the court. We’re competing with those high level schools we haven’t competed with for years. That takes some skill and it makes us feel good.”
Knipe’s lone loss this year was a grueling, 6-7 (4-7 tiebreaker), 6-3, 4-6 setback to one of the county’s top players in WW-PN’s Charlie Xiang. Last year he lost to North’s first singles in straight sets.
“He’s a fighter,” Schleifman said. “He’s a kid who will play every point to the death. He will never, ever give up. It sets a tone for the team. He’s a number one they respect, and that’s important when you’re number one is to be respected.
“He’s a great tennis player, I don’t think we’ve seen the best of Casey yet. You can actually see the progression in him. I’m excited for him. He’s gonna get better and better as he goes forward and he’s showing that this year. I could see the difference in the West Windsor match. He’s mentally tougher and fighting for things.”
Knipe welcomes the role of being held up as a shining example, saying he does not look upon it as pressure.
“I think of it as an opportunity,” Knipe said. “I know what I’m capable of. I may not always have my best stuff but I’m willing to be tenacious and compete against those schools we haven’t had success against. It’s just amazing to have that feeling.”
It is a feeling that runs throughout the singles group, which includes junior Yash Agarwal at second singles (after being 16-2 at third last year), and senior Manav Murali Krishnan at third after excelling at second doubles in 2022.
“All three singles are fighting players,” Schleifman said. “They’re all talented tennis wise but they’re just gonna keep running and keep going and it’s ‘You’re gonna have to beat me.’ That’s gonna pay off. Last year in states it paid off. We had that tenacity.”
Agarwal is the type of player who rises to the occasion. He looks solid in practice, but when he gets into a match, his play goes to a different level.
“He fights for everything,” Schleifman said. “He’s got great tennis skills but he’s just a fighter as well. He just got five seed at counties (which began on Apr. 24). He’s our in-game player. He’d be out here for 10 hours a day if you wanted him to be. Just an amazing forehand.”
Murali Krishnan teamed to go 16-2 with the since-graduated Tarun Ravikumar last year, after having to sit out two seasons. In 2020 Covid shut down everything and, because his grandmother lived with the family in 2021, they did not want to risk Murali exposing it to her that year. He returned with a vengeance last year.
“He was a leader on that doubles team,” Schleifman said. “He’s solid. I believe on any given day he can go out and do whatever you need him to do. He’s another fighter. He’ll be down love-five and he’s gonna keep fighting.
“Last year in the sectional final (with Holmdel) they won the first set but were down one-three in the second. He said the heat was getting to him. I didn’t think he could make it through three sets, I said ‘Do you have enough to win it in two?’ He said ‘I have enough, I’ll do it.’ And they won 6-3.”
First doubles feature junior twin brothers Aditya Rakshit and Aryan Rakshit, who are “both skilled players.” Aryan is one of two newcomers to the team while Aditya teamed with Rohan Masamsetty at first doubles.
“Aditya is more experienced and Aryan is new and he’s kind of learning, so they’re learning now together,” Schleifman said. “They play well together. Last year I told them it was best to give up a little bit as partners but this year they were ready to play together. They communicate well and both have great strokes. Also a lot of tenacity, they’re not gonna give up.”
“I guess I say that about everybody on this team,” the coach added with a laugh.
Second doubles features hard-working juniors Masamsetty and Vedant Mandrekar, a varsity newcomer.
“Vedant said ‘I’m determined to go home, work hard and come back to be a varsity athlete,” Schleifman said. “They’re a work in progress. They’re learning to play doubles together. They’re gonna get stronger as the year goes on. And yes they’ll have tougher teams, but in every match they play you can see improvement. Both are naturally talented, tenacious, good strokes, good ability. As much as they have to work at it, both doubles teams are 5-1 (through Apr. 23).”
Each Raven has to improve, as Robbinsville is no longer the team opponents look past. Winning a sectional crown will do that.
In 2021 the Ravens reached the CJ II semifinals before being blanked by Holmdel, 5-0. That was a senior-laden team and Robbinsville started over last year, but Schleifman saw potential from the start.
“I felt we had the ability to do it but they were young so I wasn’t sure,” the coach said. “Our goal was ‘Let’s get to the finals.’ We got to the semifinals the year before. We were rebuilding. Our one and three were different but we still thought last year our goal should be the finals.
“When we got to the final, we thought we would feel that whatever we do there, we’ve accomplished what we wanted. But once we were there we thought ‘We should do this.’ And then obviously we prepared and said we can do this.”
They faced perennial Central Jersey power Holmdel again, and this time took a 3-2 victory. Aritro Ganguly (who did not return this year) and Agarwal won at second and third singles to go along with the second doubles victory.
“I was really proud of them,” Schleifman said. “We had a plan and I thought it would be this year, but because we actually pulled through we’re a year ahead of where I thought we were gonna be.”
Knipe said it was an awesome feeling to make RHS history.
“It really meant a lot to the entire team and our entire school,” he said. “Tennis isn’t really seen as something where everybody will succeed and do well in, but I think we kind of proved them wrong last year. I think our team improved together. We just strived for greatness every day so it was honestly amazing.”
Knipe said there was no turning point to the season, where a light bulb suddenly went on and the Ravens knew they could win it.
“I think deep down inside we knew it was gonna happen at some point,” he said. “It was just a matter of time. I think we actually knew it, when it happened.”
The Ravens fell to Demarest in the Group II state semifinals but, with most of the team returning, the goal was already set.
“The minute they lost the Group Two semis they looked at me and said ‘We don’t like this feeling,’” Schleifman said. “Coming in this year I said to them ‘It’s a new year, there’s teams that are stronger. They know you are coming now. It’s harder the second time around.’”
The important thing is, the Ravens are not automatically looking ahead to the states. They are trying to make sure things are as comfortable as possible once the tournament begins.
“I told them let’s get through the regular season, try to get a number one seed and stay home throughout it,” Schleifman said. “Of course they want to repeat in the sectionals, and then redeem themselves. The minute they lost that was the first thing they said. What can we do to get that Group Two?’ They’re up to the challenge.”
Knipe said it’s a day to day process.
“If we keep up the hard work and do what we need to do,” he said, “things should be fun.”