High School South’s Alex Yang prepares to hit a backhand shot during the Pirates’ 4-1 win against High School North on April 5, 2017. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

Robert Siniakowicz delivered in the biggest spot he’s been in for the West Windsor-Plainsboro High South boys tennis team.

Tied, 2-2, with Westfield in last year’s Tournament of Champions semifinal match, Siniakowicz pulled out a second-set tiebreaker win, 7-2, at second singles for a 3-2 team win that delivered the Pirates to their seventh TOC final. They lost to 13-time champion Newark Academy, but laid the groundwork for this year’s goals.

“I just wanted to win,” Siniakowicz recalled. “I was just thinking about the team at that point. Hopefully we get into that kind of situation, in the Tournament of Champions that deep. That would be good for us.”

It’s good, too, for them to have Siniakowicz in a high-pressure situation. He’s a player that they rely on for critical points.

“He’s a tenacious warrior that never gives up,” said Pirates head coach Richard Arnold. “I call him the Polish Punisher. He likes it. He just grinds you.”

Siniakowicz is one of three singles players back for the Pirates. They also return Kabir Sarita at first singles and Matt Michibata at third singles, so their singles lineup could look exactly as it did a year ago. They also boast a strong group of doubles candidates, a combination with their singles strength that gives the Pirates a good chance to make it back to the TOC finals.

“We want to win the whole thing with this group of players,” Arnold said. “This has never been done. We’ve lost six times in the Tournament of Champions final to Newark Academy and lost to Millburn once. If we don’t do it this year, I don’t know if it’ll ever be done in West Windsor history. This is the year we’re focusing on. We don’t want to be runner-up.”

Getting to the finals last year marked their second trip in five seasons. They also lost to Newark Academy in 2012. None of the current team members had advanced that far before last season.

High School South’s Robert Siniakowicz won his match at second singles as part of a 4-1 team win against High School North on April 5, 2017. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

Last year’s experience is a huge plus for High School South. They return a bevy of players who saw what it took to reach the final and are motivated to return for a title this year.

“We were so close to it last year,” said Siniakowicz, who is a junior this year. “We almost did it. It was crazy. We had such a good opportunity. It would mean a lot more than any other win to us. We’d bring something home to our school that is unforgettable. It’ll leave our mark. It’ll leave a legacy for West Windsor tennis when Matt and I and Kabir and everybody on our team leaves, everyone will remember this team won.”

The loss last year is something that they are using to push themselves through a regular season that won’t have much stiff competition. The Pirates are the defending Mercer County Tournament champions, and High School North and Prep B giant Princeton Day School look to be the toughest challengers.

High School South has scheduled some tough competition outside of its regular Colonial Valley Conference schedule. The Pirates can use some of their back-ups in some of the less taxing CVC matches, but they will need their top lineup for tough matchups like the Haddonfield Invitational and Newark Academy Invitational.

High School South already had one huge test. They stopped Mountain Lakes and Westfield to reach the Bryan Bennett Memorial Tournament final, where they lost, 3-2, to Montgomery High. With the Pirates moving up from Group III to Group IV, there’s a strong possibility that the two teams will meet again in the Central Jersey Group IV final for the right to go to the Group IV state semifinals. The Group IV winner then advances to the TOC along with other group winners.

“Montgomery is by far better than any other team,” Arnold said. “If we don’t beat them in our sectional, we can’t even get in.”

With Sarita at the top of the lineup, the Pirates have a strong starting point. The Princeton University-bound senior reached the finals of the state singles tournament last year as well. He has returned improved for his final year with the Pirates.

“I think his volleys definitely are better,” Arnold said. “Against the big guys, I told him, ‘You have to be able to put in a big serve and bring the heat. When you need a point, you have to be able to put that serve in or a serve that’s not coming back.’ I saw that on Sunday (in the Bennett Memorial).”

Siniakowicz, too, has come back improved this year. The biggest change from his freshman to sophomore year was a rise in confidence. This year, he has come back looking to be a more efficient player.

“I want to get more free points when I play, and keep matches shorter,” he said. “I know I had a lot of long matches last season. If I can keep matches shorter and be more aggressive, I can be more efficient moving on toward the end of the season when it really matters and avoid injuries and any kind of fatigue.”

Kabir Sarita returns at first singles for the Pirates this season. (Photo by Suzette J. Lucas.)

Siniakowicz is in the midst of exploring his playing options for the future. He is visiting colleges that combine strong academics with the chance to continue developing his game.

Beyond Siniakowicz, the Pirates were still working out the lineup two weeks into the season. Injuries had kept them from completing all their challenge matches, but Arnold expected Michibata, Alex Yang, Sam Ping, Andre Hsueh, Chiru Koiloth and Aditya Ravi to be among the players in the mix for third singles and the two doubles teams.

“The thing is we could put another kid at No. 3 singles to win a lot of matches, but you can’t just do that,” Arnold said, referring to the necessity to go by the challenge match ladder. “Michibata and Yang at first doubles, no one would beat them. When you play the big guys, you have to have good doubles.”

Siniakowicz is feeling confident in the doubles options that the Pirates have. Once they gain experience together, the doubles tandems should help the Pirates.

“I still think we have a lot of growth and we have a lot of potential in our doubles,” Siniakowicz said. “We just had some injuries so we still have some guys who can come in and fill some doubles spots. I think it’s going to be our best doubles out of my three years at West Windsor.”

The Pirates are one of the best teams in the state, and after reaching a final last year, they are looking forward to the chance that they can be No. 1.

“It’s fun to be the favorite,” Siniakowicz said. “It does motivate us. Hopefully we don’t change that mentality. We’re going to need it throughout the season.”