Jackie Bukzin was a relative unknown when she stormed into the Suffolk County tournament two years ago as a seventh- grader. After finishing fourth and coming in second last season, the top returning player in Suffolk County is ready to continue her ascent to the top of the girls tennis scene.
"I've definitely become more mentally tough on the court when it comes down to chasing those extra balls," Bukzin said. "This year I trained a lot in the summer, too, which is something I hadn't really done in the past and it's really benefiting me."
Bukzin became the first Eastport-South Manor player to make it to the state tournament last year.
"There are coaches that can go 20 years and never make it up to states," ESM coach Sharon Klune said. "That was just an experience in itself."
Bukzin's experience of playing older players in USTA tournaments has also benefited her.
"She's stronger, taller and faster and her serve has gotten much better," Klune said. "She's gotten more mature and she's very levelheaded -- it's all coming together."
Long Island's other top returning player, Herricks senior Taylor Cosme, is hoping to make her last run her best. She won the Nassau Tournament as the No. 2 seed last season and advanced to the state quarterfinals. Her Herricks team and North Shore are the teams to beat in Nassau Conference II-A.
The competition in Nassau's top conference, I-A, will be as wide open as it has been in recent memory, according to coordinator Shai Fisher of Syosset.
Defending champion Port Washington comes in as the No. 1 preseason seed and will be led by first singles player Sarah Seeman. First-year coach Shane Helfner is hoping his team can make it back-to-back titles after the Vikings ended Syosset's four-year run of championships.
"I know last year in our conference there were a lot of 4-3 scores and even matches and I think this year will be the same," Helfner said. "Every school has lost some top players and it will really depend on the younger up-and-comers. I feel like we're going to be very competitive and could win any match. I don't think any team will be really dominant."
Jericho enters as the No. 2 seed and Roslyn is pegged third. Syosset, led by senior Katie Cirella, rounds out the top four.
In Suffolk the two teams that went undefeated during the regular season and met in the County final, Half Hollow Hills East and Floyd, look to be on another collision course.
Hills East will be led by singles player Ester Chikvashvili, who is a top contender to win the Suffolk individual crown. Vanessa Scott, who was part of a team that won the Suffolk doubles tournament last season, returns and will pair with Ester's sister Stephanie. The two will also fortify Hills East's singles strength.
Floyd returns its entire team, including all-state doubles team Kelci Henn and Lisa Lin and first singles Emily Fernandez.
"Last year we had a nice run and we worked hard over the summer," Floyd coach Dave Pia said. "We have a good team and we just need to remain mentally focused."