Aleksandra Drljaca counts it as the “most special” moment of her short high school career.
To date, however, the now senior’s 2012 season has also gone down as the finest in East Greenwich High School girls tennis history. Last fall, Drljaca rarely lost a set during her junior campaign, winning 36-of-38, let alone a match as she went a perfect 18-0 in Interscholastic League play en route to becoming the first female in the school’s history to capture the RIIL individual state tennis championship.
As East Greenwich prepares to open their 2013 season, the three-time All-State selection and now senior captain of the Avengers will be looking to do something else this fall that has not been done in recent history: Repeat as state champion.
There have been opportunities in each of the last two seasons as Smithfield’s Jenna LaBarre knocked off 2010 champion Hannah Zangari of North Kingstown in 2011 before she fell to Drljaca 4-6, 6-2, 6-1 at Slater Park last October. Drljaca has been at work all summer, however, continuing to refine her game in hopes she can capitalize where her predecessors could not.
“Been out there on the court every single day,” Drljaca said. “Practicing with my coach, playing a lot of tournaments, a lot of national tournaments. Always been practicing this summer.
“Obviously working on the same things, but also my strategy. On my match play and how to form a point, how to finish it. My mental game. When I’m up, how do I stay up? Make sure you keep going and you play throughout the same match. Play your game.”
It is that practice and precision that has helped Drljaca be a force on the court since her freshman year.
“She’s a robot,” said East Greenwich coach Marc Brocato of his ace. “I truly think she’s got some wires inside.
“I’ve joked with her for four years now that she’s just a machine. You watch her hit and she’s just so precise and her ground strokes are just so unbelievable and if she can get to a ball, she’ll do something with it. She’s a special player.”
While her physical gifts on the court have been undeniable since the moment she set foot on Avenger Drive, both player and coach will admit it has been the development of Drljaca’s mental game over the past year that has taken her game to its nearly untouchable level and was the biggest factor in her success last season.
“The thing that she’s really improved over the years is her mental game,” Brocato said. “She’s always had the physical tools. Her physical game is similar to what it was her freshman year, she’s always had the ground strokes, but she’s really improved her strategy.
“She’s improved her mental aspect where if she goes out on the court, she expects to win and that’s half the battle as an athlete. If you have any fear whatsoever in your mind as an athlete, it overshadows all your physical tools. She has really learned to control any doubts that would ever enter her mind and she goes out there and, come Hell or high water, she’s going to win and she expects to win and that was a big change for her last year.”
Talent, however, is not enough. Zangari and LaBarre are proof of that. Though it is a very likely possibility, a repeat is not a given for Drljaca, who could face even more difficulty to start the season as she is currently hampered with a foot injury. Work will need to continue to be done on a game that is already considered by the some to be the best in the state.
“The thing I’m going to stress to her all the time is you can’t go out there just expecting to win it. You have to be just as hungry, if not hungrier than you were last year. And, boy, was she hungry last year,” said Brocato. “She wanted that as bad as anything, but she has to want it just as much this year or it’s not going to happen.”
The road to a repeat is long, daunting and will not come without its fair share of work when it begins on Wednesday as the Avengers travel to Bay View Academy for their first match of the season. (Results unavailable at time of press.) Drljaca, however, for as much as she wants to and is anxious to begin her bid at a repeat, is not about to let the weight of the crown and pressure of repeating take away from the joy of getting out on the court with her teammates and playing in this, her final season of high school tennis.
“I don’t want to feel any pressure,” Drljaca said. “This is fun, tennis is fun. It’s my senior year, so it’s all about having some fun.”