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This champ exhibits team-first mentality

His commitment prepped Cougars for title run.

Day 1: The Cherry Hill East boys' tennis team gathers around senior star Ravi Yegya-Raman, who sets the agenda for the season.

Day 63: Same scene, same star, same agenda.

"Ravi has put it in his mind to help this team win a state championship," Cherry Hill East coach Ralph Ipri said. "He's all about the team. And in 43 years of coaching, I've never seen a player generate the kind of respect from his teammates that he gets."

From the first meeting of the season in Cherry Hill, to the moments after Monday's sectional championship match at Cherokee, Yegya-Raman has been the definition of a team leader.

It's not merely that he's the best player in the state, the defending champion in the individual singles tournament. It's not merely that he's undefeated over the last two seasons.

It's more than that, according to Ipri. It's Yegya-Raman's commitment to his team as well as his sport that has the Cougars in prime position to capture the Group 4 state title tomorrow at Mercer County Park.

"To me, it's more important that we win a championship as a team than that I win the championship as an individual," Yegya-Raman said after leading Cherry Hill East to a 5-0 victory over Lenape Monday in the South Jersey Group 4 championship match.

Cherry Hill East (22-2) will meet Ridgewood (18-0) in tomorrow morning's state semifinals at Mercer County Park. With a victory, the Cougars would advance to meet the Westfield-West Windsor South winner in tomorrow afternoon's Group 4 state final.

"I don't know if we can win," said Ipri, who has led Cherry Hill East to 32 sectional titles and eight state titles in his 39 years as the Cougars' coach. "But I know we're going to give it everything we've got, and the reason for that is Ravi."

In a largely individual sport, Yegya-Raman is the rare top player: He's channeled much of his energy, as a senior, toward the good of the team.

So he gathered the Cougars around him during the first meeting of the season and talked about the need for improved conditioning.

So he broke off time from his own practice sessions to work with teammates on returns of service, footwork, serving techniques.

So he pulled the team together after Monday's match and talked about the need to prepare for tomorrow's big day.

"I've never seen anything like it," Ipri said. "I'll cancel practice because of the weather and he'll be like, 'Coach, can we go in the gym and run?'

"And the kids follow his lead with vigor. They do things I tell them to do because I'm the coach and they have to. They do things he asks them to do because they want to."

Like many star players, Yegya-Raman has been forced to balance commitment to the team with his own personal development. That inevitably has led to some tricky situations as far as workout partners and attendance at practice and at some of the Cougars' less competitive matches.

Cherry Hill East senior doubles player Dan Kim said that Yegya-Raman has been far more focused on the team as a senior and that the Cougars have benefited from his increased involvement.

"If I had to judge Ravi by this year, I'd have to say he's been a very good captain," Kim said. "My partner [Jon Chalik] and I were having trouble with overheads and Ravi would help us out, call us even when we didn't have practice to play with us and work on that.

"He made us run more to get in better shape. He even talked to us about eating the right foods."

Yegya-Raman ranks 11th in a senior class of nearly 600 at Cherry Hill East. He plans to attend Princeton and to play for the Tigers' powerful tennis program.

Ipri said Yegya-Raman is "one in a career."

For most players, Yegya-Raman's dramatic, three-set victory in last year's state single finals would be the capstone of a career. But the Cougars' star insists his career won't be complete unless his team raises the state championship trophy late tomorrow afternoon.

"We've got our sights set on something more," Yegya-Raman said after the sectional finals. "As a team, we want to go all the way."