When the 2011 season ended, tennis coaches in the Northern Region couldn’t hold back their exasperated sighs. Another season gone, another regional crowning ceremony for Liberty District champion Thomas Jefferson. With the Colonials sure to bring back plenty of talent the following year, would other teams longing for glory at the region and state level ever see the light of day again?
Change finally came about in the spring of 2012. Jefferson took a step back with a mere 13-4 record, opening the door for its district rivals to have their day in the sun. McLean went undefeated on its way to a Liberty District title, and Langley rode a wave of postseason momentum into its first regional triumph since 1999 and, eventually, a close loss in the state championship.
Parity was restored for the time being, but did it signal a true shift in the area’s balance of power? Given how the Colonials have performed this season - laying waste to every opponent on their way to yet another region title - the answer to that question would have to be an emphatic no.
Jefferson reclaimed the throne in Monday’s regional team finals, defeating Langley 5-2 to earn its fourth region championship in the last five years. They followed that up with a convincing 6-1, 6-1 win in Tuesday’s region doubles final.
The key to the Colonials’ resurgence this year lies in the senior member of that winning doubles pairing. Deciding to forgo his junior year of high school tennis so that he could focus on academics and USTA tournaments last year, Chris Vrabel has returned to the scene this season, much to the dismay of anyone who thought Jefferson’s days of dominance were nearing an end.
“He’s a difference maker; he’s a game changer,” Jefferson coach John Myers said. “The guys on the team love him. His peers from other schools respect him. He’s a big deal in this area.”
Considered the No. 2 prospect in the Mid-Atlantic region by TennisRecruiting.net, Vrabel has used his long reach and powerful ground strokes to impose his will on every opponent he’s faced in both doubles and singles on the high school circuit this year. His commitment to Cornell already in place, Vrabel decided to play in just two USTA events this spring so that he could finish up his high school career on top.
One of those events forced him to miss the Liberty District singles final, but he was able to continue his partnership with sophomore Kevin Wan into Tuesday’s regional victory at Fairfax High School. Wan entered the match with a bad hand that affected his backhand stroke, but he and Vrabel were still able to grab a decisive win against Lake Braddock’s Alex Nesterovich and Long Huynh.
“That changed our game plan a little bit, but Kevin has a good serve and a solid volley, so we were fine,” Vrabel said.
Wan, Jefferson’s No. 2 singles player each of the last two years, has steadily improved his game playing alongside his older teammate. Vrabel constantly offers him tips and advice, and Wan is always wiling to listen.
“Practicing with Chris has really helped him a lot with picking up his pace of the ball and improving his skills, particularly on his serve and his volley,” Myers said. “Hitting with Chris, you’ve got to be on your toes because he rifles the ball. He doesn’t hit a very slow ball any time.”
Vrabel and Wan weren’t the only ones putting on a show Tuesday. McLean senior Nik Padmanabhan backed up his Liberty District singles title with a victory in the regional singles final, defeating Langley freshman Kevin Shen 7-6 (7-4), 6-2. Both players fought hard in the drawn-out first set under the hot late-afternoon sun, but it was Padmanabhan who withstood the elements best in the second set. His grit earned him a measure of redemption from what happened the last time he faced this stage.
“I was in the same match last year, but I lost in the finals,” said Padmanabhan, who plans to play club tennis at the University of Virginia next year. “So it was great to get through this year. As soon as I got through that first set, I believed that I could get through it straight. I was able to play better second set. Just winning that first set and getting out of that tiebreaker was huge.”
Padmanabhan’s win moves him into Tuesday’s state quarterfinals, where he says he expects to do better than his nerve-filled appearance at that stage last year. Jefferson, meanwhile, will host a state quarterfinal match at Wakefield Park on Tuesday against Freedom High. The Colonials view it as a potential launching pad toward their first-ever state title.
“Obviously we’re hoping to win it,” Vrabel said. “I guess we’ll go out and do what we’ve done all season.”