Wheatley sophomore Aaron Raja paused for a moment before answering the question. He’d been a major part of what can only be described as a transformative season for the Wildcats boys tennis team and was asked how he might look back on it in the years to come.
“I don’t think there are sentences, but just words: unforgettable, special, joyous,” he said. “When a group of friends and teammates accomplishes something together that’s not been done? Winning a state championship? There’s no better feeling.”
The Wildcats’ season was all of Raja’s words and more. They won the Nassau Conference II title, rolled over Shoreham-Wading River to win the Long Island small schools crown and capped a 19-0 season by topping Section I titlist Byram Hills in the inaugural New York State Public High School Athletic Association Division II championship at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
“We were part of a historic run,” said junior Steven Jarrahy, who teamed at second doubles with Eli Mizhiritsky. “We are a small school and we won a big state championship. All of us felt honored to get to represent our school that way.”
Fifth-year coach Herman Lim said, “We’ve had strong teams, but never the kind of depth we had this season and that made a big difference.”
Wheatley added three new players before the season, giving it the talent and depth it would need.
Senior Kavin Shukla returned from two years competing regionally to take over at first singles and Raja moved over one spot to second singles. Eighth-grader Saje Vijay Menon made the varsity and was installed at third singles. And ninth-grader Ilan Klein transferred in from a school in Nevada and was paired with Rahul Dawar at first doubles.
Wheatley's potential became clear at the midpoint of the season following a win over formidable Hewlett to improve to 7-0. Said Lim: “If we could get past a loaded team like Hewlett with a 4-3 win, everyone began to believe we were capable of something big.”
“It was a momentum thing,” Menon said. “We had to be seen as underdogs at the beginning of the season and that inspired us to play well. Success on the court gave us confidence.”
Wheatley shone brightest when playing singles. Shukla combined the team’s most powerful ground strokes with great speed. Raja was a master of in-match adjustments to counter an opponents’ strengths. Menon, while very young, was a package with no discernable weakness and great consistency.
That trio was at its best in the team's five postseason matches. They won all 15 of their contests and didn’t drop a set. In the state title contest, the University of Rochester-bound Shukla trailed 5-2 in the second set and rallied to win his match, 6-2, 7-5, to clinch the championship.
For the season, Shukla was 17-2, Raja was 17-2 and Menon was 18-0.
“We were a good team already but adding three strong players like we did gave us the extra push,” Raja said.
“Watching the way they came together and pulled for each other and triumphed together was really fun,” Lim said. “When I think about it, I still can’t believe it happened for us. What an amazing run.”
ROAD TO THE CHAMPIONSHIP
Nassau County Semifinals
Def. Cold Spring Harbor, 5-0
Def. Friends, 4-1.
Long Island Championship
Def. Shoreham-Wading River, 5-0
Def. Cazanovia (Section III), 5-0
Def. Byram Hills (Section I), 3-2