A year away from the Ward Melville tennis team to focus on training and USTA only helped sophomore Denise Lai improve her game. That point was driven home Tuesday when Lai captured the Suffolk III individual championship.

“I got to play more and enter tournaments during the year away so it really helped improve my game,” Lai said. “But after last season ended I realized how much I missed being with the team and I really wanted to come back.”

As an eighth-grader, Lai was the runner up in the Suffolk Division III tournament and made a run to the county quarterfinals.

She returned this season with a more refined skill set and added a more aggressive element to her game.

“I really started to come to the net more and work on pushing my opponent more than I had in the past,” she said.

So far, so good.

Lai, the top seed, defeated teammate and second-seeded Jade Eggleston, 6-1, 6-2 in the final of the Suffolk III tournament.

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“She’s extremely talented in all aspects of her game,” Ward Melville coach Erick Sussin said of Lai. “She was more of a baseline player who had really good hands at the net but she plays well at all aspects on the court.”

The all-Ward Melville final comes at the end of a regular season in which the Patriots finished 12-0 in League V and 13-1 overall.

“Playing against Jade was kind of hard,” Lai said. “We warmed up together before the match and you don’t want to be too mean and aggressive against a teammate.”

The Patriots, the No. 2 seed in the Suffolk playoffs, will have plenty more opportunities to take any aggression out on their opponents.

Besides Lai and Eggleston, top-seeded Keren Collins and Anna Ma won the doubles tournament, defeating No. 2 Rebecca Blydenburgh and Samantha Saulino of Longwood, 6-2, 6-3.

Unseeded Dara Berman and Julia Hu also advanced to the county tournament by winning the doubles consolation match 6-3, 6-2 over Patchogue-Medford’s No. 4 Emily Potter and Julia Keiffert.

“This is the best team we’ve had in a couple of years,” Sussin said. “We knew from day one that we could be the 1 or 2 seed and go really far in the playoffs.”