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With more depth, Bulldogs aim for more court success

Posted: February 25, 2012 10:23 a.m.
Updated: February 27, 2012 5:00 a.m.

It is always nice when a rebuilding season turns out to be one of the best in school history.
All the Camden High tennis team did in 2011, after losing the winningest player in the program’s history along with a first singles player who went on to play Division I tennis, was to fashion a 19-1 record. The lone blemish on the Bulldogs’ ledger was a 4-2 loss at Bluffton in the AAA Lower State semifinals.
Now, a few months removed from that setback and a full season after having played for the state crown, Roger Smoak looks to piggyback on the success of last year as he begins his 42nd year at the CHS helm with four starters back in the fold.
Heading the list of the returnees is sixth-year starter, Jo Jo Tiller. The senior is coming off consecutive 18-0 seasons in singles, including having played at first singles and first doubles last spring in which he earned All-State honors.
Tiller carries a 75-3 singles mark and a perfect 21-0 record in doubles to give him an overall 96-3 ledger. He needs two victories in order to eclipse his older brother Cauthen’s school-record 97 victories, the final of which came as a senior in the 2010 state title match.
“We’ll go as far as he leads us,” Smoak said of Tiller. “Normally, when Jo Jo wins we win and if he should lose, there’s a good chance that we will lose the match.”
“Jo Jo should be our leader. He’s the guy we can count on. He’s either going to win or, it’s going to be a good match every time he goes out there. He has kind of spoiled us because we expect him to win every time he plays.”
With Tiller, who won 87 percent of his games (losing just 33 last spring) at the top of the ladder and with three returning singles starters after that back in the fold, Smoak felt comfortable enough to toughen up his team’s regular season schedule. Back on the docket are home and home series with rivals Spring Valley and Irmo while a solid SCISAA entry in Wilson Hall is a newcomer to the slate of 18 regular season matches.
When you add in this weekend’s always-rugged Florence Tennis Association pre-season tournament, the Dogs should be tournament-tough once the post-season rolls around.
“We felt that our schedule was not as hard as we would have liked it to have been last year so, we’ve beefed it up with Spring Valley and Irmo, which are two of the better 4A schools in the state, year-in and year-out,” said Smoak whose 559 career victories are the most in the history of high school tennis in South Carolina.
“I’m also expecting a lot of improvement from most of the other schools on our schedule who have a lot of their players back from last year.”
Last spring, Camden breezed through its 18-match regular season and then blanked Cane Bay, 6-0, in the first round of the state tournament. The Dogs’ string of wins came to an abrupt end in the loss to Bluffton in a match which Smoak said left a sour taste in his team’s collective mouth.
“We lost in the semifinals of the Lower State in a match that we felt we shouldn’t have lost. We definitely have that in the back of our mind,” Smoak said as to how that defeat would serve to motivate his 10-player squad this time around.
Led by Tiller, Smoak said Camden has two wins virtually assured should the team need to go to first doubles, which the Bulldogs needed to do just seven times in 2011.
“Jo Jo is a very consistent player and he has every shot. He will certainly go down as one of the greatest players in Camden High School tennis history,” Smoak said. “We expect a great year from him in both singles and doubles. We felt very good if the match went to number one double last year because if it did, we felt Jo Jo would win.
“He’s really smart and he knows how to play the game. Very composed on the court; he doesn’t get rattled or upset.”
Joining Tiller as a team lead er is classmate Davis Goodrich, who played at fourth and fifth singles as a junior and fashioned a 17-2 record for a team which went 85-15 in singles matches. Goodrich, who was also an All-Region 6 runner in cross country in the fall, is expected to play in the middle of the order this year.
“Davis has been someone we can count on for a win in the middle of the bottom of our lineup. It will be the same thing this year,” Smoak said. “He’s a big, strong kid who competes hard, who has a great attitude and who works hard in practice. He’s a kid you can count on to give you his best and to try his hardest every time.”
For the past two seasons, junior Roderick Todd has been the Bulldogs’ tough-luck kid. Both his freshman and sophomore seasons were shortened due to early season injuries. Last year, Todd was injured in the fourth match of the season and was unable to return until the regular season finale. He finished with a 5-2 record.
A healthy Todd, a fifth-year player, is expected to play at second singles while teaming with Tiller at first doubles.
“Roderick being injured hurt our team the last two years,” Smoak said. “He seems to be healed and is playing well in practice.
“Roderick has great strokes; he has experience and everything it takes. He is just a good kid who gives you his best at all times and a very good player.”
Rounding out the list of returning starters is freshman Nelson Semple, who started the year at fifth singles before Todd’s injury led to his being bumped into third singles. A talented athlete, Semple turned in a 16-4 record in his first season as a starter. Smoak expects big things from the freshman this time around.
“Nelson had a great year for us last season,” said the CHS head coach. “He’s one of those kids who is a very good athlete and who is very competitive with unlimited potential. He just has to correct a few things and become more consistent. We expect big things from him in the middle of the lineup this year.”
Sophomore Ben Goodrich went 13-4 in playing second doubles last season while winning his only singles match. Smoak expects him to compete for the fifth singles spot and should that not be the case after the challenges matches, Goodrich will return to second doubles and anchor that duo.
Joining in the competition for the number five slot is freshman Thomas deLoach, who filled in at number five last year in which he sustained an ankle injury which led to a shortened season in which he won five of his seven matches.
Smoak said both Goodrich and deLoach did “great jobs for us last year” adding that both potential singles’ starters are players who will give 100 percent each time out.
Whoever will play at second doubles will team with Carlos Williams, a first-year eighth-grade player, who is the brother of 2011 CHS graduate Bryan Williams, who was 10-3 in doubles and 2-0 in singles.
“It looks like Carlos will take Brian’s position at second doubles,” Smoak said. “He is a great athlete with tremendous quickness and coordination. He’s just learning to play tennis and when his stroke development gets better, he is going to be an outstanding player for us.”
Three newcomers will give the Dogs depth in sophomore Charlie Nash, eighth-grader Thomas Marshall and Mack Lindsay, a seventh-grader. Nash, who plays football in the fall, is just getting his feet wet in tennis while the middle-schoolers are players which Smoak have “a lot of potential” with big upsides to their respective games.
With five upperclassmen and five players who are freshman or younger, Smoak said he likes the makeup and balance of his squad. Regardless of having just two seniors, Smoak said his expectations for this team have not changed from those of previous seasons.
“We do have high expectations and we have a good blend of youth and experience,” he said. “Most of the time, when you expect to play for a state championship, you have most of your team being upperclassmen who have played a long time. We’re still not there, yet. We’re still fairly young and we’re depending on, at least, three underclassmen to give us that depth which we need. A lot of how we do this year will depend on our depth and how we do at number five singles and number two doubles.
“The top of our lineup should be more consistent because they have more experience.”
Helping to develop and fine-tune the games of the younger players are tasks which assistant coaches Ralph Brinson and Neil Vroegop have undertaken. Smoak said he could not ask for two better teachers of the game to have working alongside him. “Ralph and Neil are both great coaches who have the best interests of the kids at heart. I really appreciate their help,” he said.
One thing which the staff has seen in the early stages of practice is that the Bulldogs started slow the first day on the courts, but have gotten better each time they go out. That has led to Smoak having some lofty, but familiar, goals for this team.
“The goals are the same for this year as we normally have,” he said. “We want the kids to have fun. We want to be good sports and compete hard every time and have a good attitude.”
“We want to improve with every match and we want to get better every day in practice. We want to defend our home court, which means winning all our home matches. We want to win the region and I feel we’re the better team and we will be favored to win our region. Then, we want to go as deep as we can in the playoffs. We’d like to go farther than we did last year, that’s for sure.”
And, Smoak and his players hope that means another trip to the state championship match.
“If we’re capable of it,” Smoak said, “we’d like to be playing for the state championship. I feel this team is very capable of doing that, if we play to our ability every time we go out.”

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