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It’s a big week in North Bay League badminton, with top teams lined up to square off, and Karen Cai could play a crucial role in how the Montgomery Vikings fare.

But don’t tell her that. It seems that the best female badminton player in the NBL gets a tad anxious before competition. Always has.

“I’m just constantly nervous,” she said. “Even now, every single game, I’m always so worried about how I’m going to do.”

I’m no soothsayer, but if past performance is helpful as a predictor, and it usually is, Cai is going to do just fine.

The senior, who also excelled as a tennis player in the fall, has not lost a league badminton match in two seasons, and this year she moved up from No. 2 to No. 1 on the Vikings’ ladder after earning All-Empire first-team honors as a junior. So when the second-place Vikings play third-place Maria Carrillo today and first-place Santa Rosa on Thursday, Cai’s contribution will be needed.

And she knows it.

“I feel the pressure I put on myself to try and not let my team down,” she said.

The pressure has a history. It seems that a high-stakes NBL tennis showdown her sophomore year, a match that she lost, gave rise to a feeling of needing to come through, not just for herself but her teammates as well.

“I had this one experience — I lost and the team lost the NBLs,” she said. “I have had that fear that (my match) really needed to be won.”

So while Cai may be somewhat burdened by that memory, it also may have sparked an athletic work rate that her coaches say leads her team by example. In the fall, Cai was the Vikings’ No. 2 tennis player, earning second-team All-Empire honors.

So it’s Cai the Vikings will lean on as they try to make a move on Santa Rosa for the top spot in the NBL race.

But if Cai puts pressure on herself to do well, her face masks the stress. She smiles as big when she makes a mistake as when she delivers a devastating smash. She laughs throughout practice, despite that fact that badminton can be a deceivingly difficult workout.

“In my opinion, it can be more tiring than tennis,” she said. “Whenever there are three sets it usually goes on for quite a long time, and if you don’t win by two points, it just goes on and on.”

I’m not sure we can take Cai’s word for it on this one. After all, she hasn’t been taken to a third set all season long.

That’s thanks to athleticism, but also a keen understanding of strategy and soft spots in her opponent’s game, assistant coach Scott Beiswanger said.

“It’s definitely an intelligence for the game,” he said. “It’s her intelligence and her ability to have any style.”

That’s probably thanks to her 4.6 grade-point average.

“She’s also the nicest person you are ever going to come across,” Beiswanger said.

Which is good news for Montgomery because Beiswanger calls Cai, a team captain, “the face of our program here.”

“You always want your best player to be your hardest worker,” he said. “She is just willing to do whatever it takes to be better.”

Sometimes that means playing stiff competition at the Boys & Girls Club and working with coaches on her game. It also means growing into a leadership role among her teammates.

“She stepped up because the team needed it,” Beiswanger said. “She practices as a leader and I think that has really helped. I think that has helped the whole team overall.”

The Vikings are 6-3 heading into this crucial week, two matches behind the Panthers, who sit at 8-1 and just ahead of the Maria Carrillo Pumas at 5-4.

“In order for us to even have a chance at being first place, we need to win both of them,” she said. “I believe that with the hard work that our team has put in that we have a chance and that we can beat them this time around.”

Butterflies or not, Cai has her game face on.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 and at Kerry.benefield @pressemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and Instagram @kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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