Rahi Patel was in a fog, he just couldn’t see it.
The Vineland High School senior was anxiously awaiting college acceptances as he began training for the boys’ tennis season.
By the time he threw on the Fighting Clan’s colors, he’d thankfully heard back from some of his top choices — New York University, Illinois and George Washington. However, trying to decide between the schools continued to divide his focus.
It wasn’t until the end of April that Patel, No. 1 in his class at Vineland, finally made his choice — he’d be studying at G.W. in the fall. Ironically, that’s when the Cape-Atlantic League Tournament opened up. At that point, Patel was only 8-6 on the season and was seeded sixth, a huge drop after last year, when he was the No. 1 seed.
With his collegiate distractions behind him though, Patel finally felt like his old self.
His season shot straight up from there as he made his first-ever CAL final, reached the round of 16 at the South Jersey Interscholastic Championships and finished 27-10 on the year. For his efforts, Patel was named The Daily Journal’s Player of the Year for the second straight season.
“Everything weighing down on me was finally gone,” said Patel, admitting he didn’t quite realize how big of burden he carried until he’d finally made his collegiate choice.
Patel’s run through CALs was clearly the confidence boost he needed. In the quarterfinals, he downed St. Augustine’s Louis Abenante, who’d beaten him handily just seven days before the start of the tourney, 5-7, 6-4, 6-1 and then dropped Middle Township’s Zack Novick, the defending champion, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 in the semis.
“I think I played great tennis, obviously,” Patel said. “I was a little disappointed about not making states (he didn’t have a .600 record by the cutoff date), so I wanted to do something memorable.”
“In the beginning (of the year) he thought because he was No. 1, he had to hit people off the court, and he wanted to look like (Moorestown’s Ryan) Dickerson (the South Jersey champion) or (Shawnee’s Justin) Kang (the S.J. runner-up) and that’s not Rahi,” Vineland coach Harry Silverstein said. “What he does best is wear people down, lengthen points out, he realized that in the Cape-Atlantic League tournament. He went three sets with Abenante, three sets with Novick, and when he goes three sets and wears an opponent down, he wins.”
Though Patel lost in the championship match to Zack’s brother Jeremy, he was able to maintain the momentum he built up and ran off a 10-match winning streak, arguably the best stretch of tennis he’d played in his career.
That included a 7-6 (4), 7-6 (8-6) victory over Toms River North’s Adam Lefkandino, who he’d lost to three times between his sophomore and junior seasons.
“That felt so awesome,” Patel said. “It was really close, and I haven’t beaten him before that, and he’s taken me down the last couple years in the (sectional playoffs), and I kind of wanted redemption there, and I felt like I got it.”
The next day, Patel secured his most important win of the year when he routed Mainland’s Ethan Fischer 6-1, 6-1. He’d lost to Fischer in three sets earlier in the season and his victory helped the Fighting Clan top the Mustangs 3-2, which ultimately allowed them to earn a share of the CAL American title with Mainland.
Patel also avenged a loss to Atlantic City’s Brian Gallagher before his streak was snapped by Shawnee’s Kang.
“Last year, I played pretty much even throughout, had a couple losses here and there,” Patel said. “This year, I had a relatively rough beginning and an amazing final stretch, which feels really good, the best way to end out.”