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Stronger from its struggles, Sidwell Friends earns third straight MAC tennis title

Quakers 7, Panthers 0

In the post-match huddle after they captured another Mid-Atlantic Athletic Conference title, the Sidwell Friends boys’ tennis players didn’t talk about the matches they just won. Instead, they reminisced about the ones they lost.

After a rocky start to the season that featured injuries and several high-profile losses against top teams in the nation, the Quakers on Saturday took turns reflecting on how those obstacles made them stronger. They finished by chanting the motto that helped bring them here: “Grit and grind.”

Sidwell swept Potomac School, 7-0, for its third consecutive MAC banner, this one on the indoor courts at the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center in Washington. Replaying the rest of the season made the moment more resonant.

The Quakers — now ranked 10th nationally by Universal Tennis — suffered a tough loss to Gonzaga early in the season. The real crucible came when the team traveled to Chattanooga, Tenn., over spring break to play No. 1 McCallie School and No. 21 Westminster School (Atlanta). Sidwell won only one of its 14 individual matches and endured several injuries.

“I think we were a little bit cocky in the beginning of the year, and then after we had those tough losses it sort of changed our mentality,” sophomore Michael Yao said. “Going through something hard together is a lot more powerful than just winning because I think you learn a lot more from the losses.”

Yao helped clinch the victory Saturday, winning his match against Potomac School’s Andrew Mu, 6-1, 6-2.

Sidwell Coach Logan West said that those early losses were crucial to the Quakers’ ensuing success.

“My goal was not to go undefeated,” West said. “If we go undefeated, we will have ran the gauntlet. The goal is to play the best, to try to beat the best. And that’s what gets us ready for the end of the season.”

For senior Rahul Prakash, Sidwell’s wavering journey to the top mirrored his own high school career. After being cut from the team his freshman year, he spent his time off during the pandemic practicing to earn his spot in the varsity lineup.

That all culminated in a powerful performance at No. 2 singles, in which he defeated Alex Zhou, 6-1, 6-2.

“[Coach] basically said: ‘You have a choice you can make. You can either let this define you, or you can go out, train hard on JV, train hard in the offseason and you can come back being a completely different player,’ ” Prakash said. “It was probably, like, the biggest turning point in my life because tennis is a huge part of my life. . . . And now I’m here, and I’m so happy to be playing No. 2 singles on a nationally ranked team. It’s better than I could have ever imagined.”

Playing at his first and last MAC tournament, Prakash said he benefited from the energy his team provided. It was a detail heightened by a last-minute change to the indoor venue, where teammates played alongside each other on a row of courts and their cheers echoed throughout the building.

“You just have to have lots of [chemistry], and that’s what we do. We’re just loud,” senior Neal Gupta said after he won his No. 1 doubles match. “It’s so fun to just be, like, behind your teammates the whole time, just screaming. So in a sport that’s usually individual, it’s just really fun to be a part of a team.”