Badminton: Neuqua Valley keeps focus on state tournament

By Bill Stone
Daily Herald Correspondent
Updated 4/18/2019 10:29 PM

Junior Katie Braun and her fellow Neuqua Valley badminton 2018 state qualifiers enjoyed great memories, complete with plenty of dancing and even friendly flash mobbing of another team.

With five state returnees from a fourth-place finisher, the Wildcats are hoping to find the best combination to secure the program's fourth top-three state trophy over the past five seasons.


"I'm trying to focus more on doubles so we're trying to see who I work best with. I'm just working on accuracy for my shots," Braun said.

"I think we're working through how do we keep the focus, how do we push through, how can we be the best that we can be and how do we play as a team?"

The Wildcats displayed their strength -- and their stamina -- Thursday for a 13-2 Senior Day victory over visiting Metea Valley in DuPage Valley Conference dual action.

Neuqua (5-0, 3-0 in DVC with 35 points) won all 10 singles matches and four of the six matches that went three sets.

The Wildcats' Helen Zhao, Bhavi Barnwal, Gowri Salam, Nayoon Lee and Ria Jindal both won in singles and doubles. Braun, Sakshi Rane, Anjana Bharadwaj, Shruti Panse and Sarah Mathew also won in singles and Aniana Bhava in doubles.

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Neuqua's final DVC dual is against Naperville North, second at state last year.

"Metea is always competitive," Neuqua coach Marie Benson said. "If you have to split (sets), it's always a great thing to win the split for sure. It's not just a physical battle. It's a mental battle."

Metea (6-6, 1-2 with 16 points) forfeited at No. 1 singles without senior Nitya Nagarajan, the program's only two-time all-state medalist who rested a slight injury but should return for Hinsdale South's ABCD Invite Saturday.

The Mustangs' doubles victories came from Vyshnavi Nukasani and Vivian Kok at No. 2 and Mahathi Vutukuru and Shagun Varman at No. 5. Both prevailed in three sets after losing the first.

"Splits is something we emphasize. They determine a lot," Metea coach Matt Long said. "Even the ones that didn't go three, we had some hard-fought matches."


At 2018 state, current sophomores Salem in singles and Zhao in doubles finished among the top 12, Braun was 2-2 in singles and senior Jindal and junior Rane were 1-2 in doubles.

"Our biggest (state) competition right now is Naperville North and Stevenson," Salem said. "We're working towards it."

The lineup continues to fluctuate. On Thursday Zhao and Barnwal played No. 1 and Braun and Rane were at No. 2.

One reason is freshmen Lee, Barnwal and Panse adding to the depth of possibilities.

The Wildcats' lone competing seniors are Jindal and Shivani Jayasaai. The other three are team managers.

"This is the first year that I haven't been convinced and totally happy with this is the lineup so it has changed a lot. But we're definitely getting closer," Benson said.

Zhao, who mostly played singles before high school, has developed a strong doubles game after playing at 2018 state with graduated Joyce Chen, the last link to the Wildcats' back-to-back state doubles championships in 2016-17.

"It was a really great experience because I got to lean so much from her for doubles play and I've gotten to use that so much this year," Zhao said.

Nagarajan has played doubles at state twice with seniors, finishing third as a sophomore and sixth last season. She also has achieved 18 singles or doubles tournament titles combined.

"I just kind of try to use (all-state finishes) as not necessarily a bragging point but to kind of motivate the rest of my team. If I could do it, and I have a bunch of weaknesses, too, why can't anybody else, too, if they work hard and work on what they need to work on," Nagarajan said.

"I honestly don't like setting anything for myself. Right now it's just the goal of getting to state and then it's just one step at a time."

This season Nagarajan is the senior leader, paired with freshman Sophia Wang and 38-4 at the No. 1 spot.

Nagarajan looked like a coach Thursday, encouraging and talking on the court with teammates between games.

"She comes out and gives the girls a whole other level of perspective. They know (to listen) because of the experience she's had, the time that she's put in and ultimately the success she's accumulated over four years," Long said.

"I can't say enough about her. Actually this senior class overall has been great for the team and the program."

Nukasani, another senior, has been to state once for doubles and last year in singles. She has not won a state match, but three of her losses were in three sets.

This year she and freshman Kok are 41-2 at the No. 2 spot after quickly bonding during tryouts.

"I've been hearing about (Kok) since before season. She picks up on shots that I don't get. We have good communication, too," Nukasani said.

"We're playing doubles very good so I think we have a better chance at state. I've been through it twice so my mind is going to be set right this time."

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