By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
When the admissions officers at the University of Pennsylvania get the application from Mainland Regional senior Meena Mandalapu, it likely won’t take too long to decide she’d be a pretty good fit for their medical program.
Mandalapu has aspirations of becoming a doctor, possibly in neuroscience, and if her career at Mainland is any indication, she’ll be able to achieve that dream sometime within the next 10 years.
Three years ago, Mandalapu took over at first singles as a sophomore and had some big shoes to fill in replacing Rachel Rah. She’s filled them admirably, coming into the 2017 postseason with nearly 50 career wins while also leading the Mustangs to consecutive South Jersey Group 3 championships. She’s been just as good with the books. Mainland doesn’t have individual student rankings, but Mustangs tennis coach Kathy Yohe said she wouldn’t be surprised if Mandalapu is at the top of the senior class.
“She’s been awesome at No. 1 singles and she’s been a captain for the past couple of years. The girls all look up to her. She does a great job, both as an athlete and a student. We don’t have rankings at our school, but she might be No. 1 in our class. She’s unbelievable,” Yohe said. “Every single one of our girls is a great student. They don’t like missing classes, they are always making up work if they miss it. It’s nice to coach kids like that.”
By the nature of high school tennis, the No. 1 singles player generally has to assume a leadership role on the team, and while Mandalapu doesn’t have a problem with that, she’s also not all that comfortable singing her own praises, preferring instead to talk about the team, and team wins and championships.
“I really love playing tennis for Mainland, I love the team,” she said. “Everyone on the team is really good about listening to what I say. It’s nice to be in that leadership role, but it’s not really that necessary because everyone on the team knows what they need to do.”
Mandalapu has come a long way since she was a freshman second singles player. She racked up a 13-2 record that year and clearly was one of the top second singles players in the Cape-Atlantic League, but the following year she had to compete against top singles players such as Emily Manzo of Egg Harbor Township and Tess Fisher of Vineland.
“She gets better every year. She’s always been good. If she has a weakness it’s been in her movement and she’s really worked on that. She has very easy power in her ground strokes,” Yohe said.
“My biggest improvement, I think, has been my fitness and my consistency. I would miss a lot of shots when I was a sophomore, but I’ve worked a lot on that,” added Mandalapu.
She won at least 12 matches during her first three seasons and is well on her way to repeating that, and also helped the Mustangs grab the top seed in the sectional tournament. And she’s done all that while maintaining high standards in the classroom, which Yohe said is commonplace on her tennis team, and at Mainland in general.
“I feel like the athletes at our school are at the top of their classes. I don’t know how they do it. They’ll be doing homework all weekend and be ready to go for practice on Monday. I texted her (before a recent practice) and she was doing homework,” Yohe said. “They really are all like Meena. This is one of the most motivated groups I’ve ever had, and for the past couple of years we’ve had a lot of scholar athletes. It’s awesome to see how well they are all doing. We’re really lucky to have so many good kids.”
“It’s a little bit of a challenge to balance both school and tennis because we’re out here for about two hours every day and we have some away matches that are far, but I do love taking harder classes and I love playing tennis, so I make it work. It got harder as I got older, because during sophomore and junior years the courses I’ve taken have been harder, but I was pretty good with managing my time so I knew how to balance it,” said Mandalapu, who takes such classes as AP Biology, Chemistry, Psychology and Calculus. “It’s taken a lot of work. It’s a lot of studying, and it takes time. (To relieve stress) I like to hang out with my friends or family, and sometimes you have to step away from tennis and doing homework and maybe just watch some TV or something.”
She said the most fulfilling aspect of her high school career has been leading the Mustangs to a pair of South Jersey Group 3 team championships.
“It’s really cool especially because we all work so hard as a team, so it’s cool to see all that work pay off for two years in a row,” Mandalapu said. “Some people on our team haven’t played tennis before high school, so it’s cool to see them improve so much that they can help us win a championship.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays