Lawrence High School tennis player Sanshal Bhyana competes during the Mercer County Tournament at Mercer County Park April 24, 2017.

It didn’t take long for head coach Alex Krajunus to convince the Lawrence High School boys’ tennis team he was the real thing.

A former player at Becton High School in Bergen County, Krajunus served as assistant for long-time Cardinals coach Pat Tarrant in 2014. When Tarrant—who serves as an instructor for the highly acclaimed Princeton Tennis Program—stepped down and Krajunus was promoted, natural trepidation set in among the players.

Senior first singles Sanjay Mahadevan, who was a sophomore in Krajunus’ first year at the helm, admitted he and the rest of the players thought the young coach was relatively inexperienced. Especially after following a veteran like Tarrant.

Fast forward to April 20, 2017, with Lawrence sitting at 5-2 and taking aim on a third straight state tournament berth under Krajunus. Oh, how the mindset has changed.

“In these past three years, I do not think I could have asked for someone to do so much for our team,” said Mahadevan, a four-year varsity starter. “He has had to make tough decisions, and although we have had minor differences, he has had the team’s and players’ best interest at heart. Like all the others on our team, he worked very hard to learn the nuances of the game and different techniques and strategies involved.”

He also provided what every coach needs to give: positive re-enforcement and game-changing strategy.

“When we are down on the scoreboard and looking for advice, it helps to have a coach that can give you meaningful advice in the heat of the moment that can potentially help you change the momentum of the match,” Mahadevan said. “We draw so much confidence from that as players. He has been that for us and much more.”

Krajunus took over a team that went 8-10 and was ousted by Somerville in the first round of the states. The Cardinals went 8-12 his first season and fell to Monmouth in the states, but improved to 10-9 and earned a first-round home match in states last year. Unfortunately, it was another loss, this time to Robbinsville, but Lawrence finished with its first winning season since 2012.

The Cardinals lost two of their top five players from 2016 but got off to a strong start. The coach is looking for them to take another step forward.

“We were kind of lucky to have such a young core last year, a lot of guys I could plug in there,” Krajunus said. “Fortunately, there’s not too much a drop off in talent. A lot of our guys are pretty consistent and competitive with each other. It makes for some good competitive balance.

The coach added that he would like the team to make a little more progress in states, as well as counties, this year.

Krajunus noted that when he played in high school, Becton was not a powerhouse but always had a team of hard workers. That is the attitude he wanted to instill at Lawrence, along with a healthy admiration for the game.

“I’ve just been trying to keep up the same work ethic they had under coach Tarrant: to have them understand what it means to compete and to have respect for your opponents,” said Krajunus, who noted that Tarrant still drops by to lend assistance at times. “Tennis is kind of a unique game, one of the only sports where you’re basically responsible for being your own judges. That underlines what the sport is really founded on. You respect the opponent, you respect the game. Trying to get the guys to buy into that idea has been the goal primarily. They’ve been meeting those expectations and fortunately we’re having some success coming along with it, so I’m very happy.”

Mahadevan feels the players not only respect the game, but each other. A starter as a freshman at second and third singles, he is now in his third straight year at first singles and feels the camaraderie and team spirit is as good as it has ever been.

He felt the Cardinals had a sour taste in their mouths at the end of last year “because we felt like we could have achieved so much more. A couple of our varsity starters got injured at the end of last season, so we were not at full strength when we played our state match and our inter-conference matches to decide the CVC last year.”

Mahadevan noted that because of that, the entire squad logged countless hours to improve their game in the off-season, giving Lawrence a chance to win a division title and perhaps some state matches. The team has embraced the underdog role, he said, and the boys don’t expect the season to be easy.

‘This county and state is very tough in terms of competition, regardless of flight. After a certain point, physical abilities can only take one so far.’

And the first singles man is one of the leading underdogs. Mahadevan was 4-3 in the Cards’ first seven matches, with his losses coming to some of the top players in the county. He went to second-set tie-breakers in losses to Hopewell and Ewing and also fell to Princeton in two close sets.

Unlike some first singles players, Mahadevan is not some sacrificial lamb that coaches put up top so others can drop down and win more matches. He is legitimately there to compete, and knows what it takes to do so.

“This county and state is very tough in terms of competition, regardless of flight,” Mahadevan said. “After a certain point, physical abilities can only take one so far. You must be mentally tough and unwavering in order to have sustained success. I feel a great responsibility to go out there and fight for every point like it may be my last because that mentality can take its toll on your opponent, and possibly allow me to be more successful.”

The senior added that having banged heads with some of the state’s best for the past three years has made him understand that every point must be earned—not just for himself, but for LHS.

“For some reason, I seem to perform much better when all of my teammates are watching and cheering me on because I feel like I have the responsibility to win for them and for my school,” he said. “I will never take that for granted because it is such a special and unique aspect of playing high school tennis.”

Krajunus confirmed that Mahadevan is “not just another body” to put at first singles. He plays competitive matches and is also a team leader in helping show other players certain drills.

“He knows how to treat his opponents and knows how to work with the coaches and team,” Krajunus said. “He’s a really good teacher of the game, a really good student and a really good competitor. He definitely deserves to be up there with the top guys and I’m kind of happy that even in close losses, he has the feeling, ‘I deserve to be up here.’”

Senior Sanshal Bhayana stood at 5-2 after leaping from doubles up to second singles in the stepladder matches. Bhayana has mixed athletic ability with a desire to get better as he has focused greatly on tennis over the past two years.

“He’s spent hours working on different strokes, different things so that he’s been able to take that second singles spot and be competitive with these players up there,” Krajunus said. “It hasn’t been easy for him—he doesn’t have a lot of singles experience—but he makes up for it in drive and determination to get to balls and get to the shots.”

Senior Evan Cribelli is in just his second season playing tennis and his second at third singles. He got off to a sterling 6-1 mark, including a win against Princeton. Krajunus said that on a team filled with characters, Cribelli is the exception with his quiet, reserved demeanor. But once he gets on the court…

“He’s really got the determination to leave it all out there, which I love,” the coach said. “He’s just a fantastic competitor. When he falls down, he wants nothing more than to be back up there.”

First doubles features juniors Ashwin Baskaran and Kieran Humphreys, relative newcomers to varsity who won their first four matches playing with each other.

“Ashwin previously only played JV and to have him at first doubles is kind of impressive,” Krajunus said. “Kieran is going to get to every ball, he’s got a drive and the desire to win. One of their goals is to try and compete for the individual state tournament at doubles. That will be tough but if they keep up their progress I think they’re going to do it.”

Rounding out the lineup at second doubles are juniors Terence Odonkor and Luke Annand, who are 4-1 overall and 1-1 while playing first doubles.

“Luke and Terence are just fantastic, fantastic athletes,” Krajunus said. “Luke has played some tennis and Terence only recently started to pick up that racket. They’re very, very coachable, very willing to listen, and I mean they just have a desire to improve and a desire to really work with the team as a whole.”

It all adds up to optimism for the Cardinals as Krajunus tries to grow the program by bringing in more players.

“Over the past three years, we have made incredible progress,” Mahadevan said. “The last couple years, although relatively successful, were tough because we lacked great depth to cope with some of the injuries we incurred during the season. This year, we are much deeper and most of our varsity players worked extremely hard over the off-season to improve their game and come into the season ready to compete for a conference title. All of our players are extremely motivated this year and that mentality has permeated throughout the team, which has built a culture I believe can be sustained for a long time.”