Warriors' Field, Pan each runners-up in CSL North badminton championships
Deerfield's top doubles pair, Ina Pan and Talia Field, did some advance scouting on the first day of the Central Suburban League North badminton championships.
Maybe that wasn't the best idea.
Vernon Hills' Neha Kulkarni and Anagha Shreesha look innocent enough, but are terrors with a racket in their hands.
"We scared ourselves," Field said.
Entered as Vernon Hills' No. 1 doubles team by coach Radhika Joshi though they hadn't played there all season, the coach thinking of upcoming sectional seeding, Kulkarni/Shreesha bested the top-seeded Pan/Field in a semifinal match 21-9, 21-13.
Kulkarni/Shreesha then beat Highland Park's Adina Bard and Vivian Esgar, 21-5, 21-15, to win the No. 1 doubles title.
"Now is their time to shine," Joshi said.
They shined indeed, then rose the next day to win their respective conference singles titles.
At No. 1 singles Pan extended Kulkarni to three games for the first time this season before the Vernon Hills freshman won 18-21, 21-10 and an epic 25-23 finale.
At No. 2, Shreesha beat fellow senior Field 21-17, 15-21, 21-15, answering the Deerfield left-hander's previous regular-season win, also in three.
Winning seven of the 12 singles brackets and four of six doubles slots at the CSL North meet April 29-30, and already leading Deerfield in regular-season, dual-meet results -- both components determine the conference champion -- Vernon Hills upended the defending champions in their home gym, 79-70.
Niles North (53 points), Highland Park (36), Maine West and Maine East followed.
Pan, headed to Case Western Reserve on a premed track, rallied in the third game from an 11-6 deficit to match point, 20-19, and again at 22-21. Kulkarni buckled down to win four of the last five points.
"Second set I was really tired, like I had side stitch and I was panting," said Kulkarni, a hard hitter out of the Shannon Pohl Badminton Academy who improved to 23-0 in singles on the season.
"I'm honestly surprised that I held in at the end because she didn't seem as tired, as tired as me. So, I'm proud of myself for fighting at the end," she said.
Despite the outcome, Pan believed she'd gained momentum for this week's Buffalo Grove sectional. Cranking up the velocity and moving her opponent up and back, side to side, Pan shelved thoughts of a regular-season loss to Kulkarni and overcame that 21-10 second game to push the unbeaten freshman.
"The first time I played her the score was really bad, but also I was having an off day," said Pan, who in 2021 reached the state consolation quarterfinals.
"This second time that I played her, today, proved that we're about the same skill level. Hopefully it'll make it easier for state."
Though Pan and Field agreed that doubles isn't really their thing, being focused on singles, they defeated Maine West's Lesley Chavez and Jessica Mueller for third place, 22-20, 21-6.
In the No. 1 doubles title match, Highland Park's Bard and Esgar sought to improve on their 21-5 first-game loss to Kulkarni and Shreesha. They did, though not enough against the top seed.
"A 10-point increase is a big thing," said Bard, a sophomore who went on to place third at No. 1 singles with a victory over Niles North's Despina Mangalousis, 21-14, 21-12.
"I think it's just trying to come back stronger the next game," she said. "Every point matters, so just try and get one more point or two more points, and see how it goes."
Esgar, a junior, enjoys a unique situation in Highland Park's third-year badminton program. She's the daughter of 26-year Deerfield coach Blanche Esgar, herself a Warriors badminton player from 1981-85.
"I think that it's a pretty fun relationship, because she's able to be here and watch my games as well as supporting her own team," Vivian Esgar said.
"I learned how to play through Deerfield with their summer camps and everything, among other things, so being back here is always fun just to kind of get back in the vibe. I feel like it's just a really cool thing to be able to be taught by my mom and be able to see her teaching her own girls," she said.
Mom wasn't quite as happy with the situation.
"It's hard, especially when they play Deerfield," Blanche Esgar said.
"When she's playing a different team I don't mind at all. But when she's playing Deerfield I'm so torn, because I want to help my girls because that's my job, but that's my daughter. It is really heart-wrenching and, to be brutally honest, it's not a fun situation. But it's OK, we're dealing with it.
"I'm so happy for her. She's worked so hard, and her and Adina have blended so well. It's so neat to watch them play together. I'm so proud of the coaches (led by Lydia Gonzalez) who put them together because they're good together. I'm excited to see them go to sectionals," Blanche Esgar said.