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Young Dogs entering tougher tennis region

Posted: February 28, 2013 11:54 a.m.
Updated: March 1, 2013 5:00 a.m.

In recent years, Camden’s winning the region title in boys’ tennis was all but a foregone conclusion. Before head coach Roger Smoak and his teams stepped onto the court for their first match, they all but had the title in their collective back pocket.
That all changed when the Bulldogs were put in Region 4-AAA, along with three-time defending state champion Chapin. One person who you will not hear complaining about the change in locale is Smoak.
Entering his 43rd year as the head coach at CHS, the winningest tennis coach in South Carolina history likes nothing more than a good challenge, something his past two squads hardly ever received in their former region which included just two other tennis-playing schools.
The combination of Smoak fielding what is one of his youngest teams and playing in what may well be the toughest AAA circuit in the state might lead some coaches to bring out the “woe is me” card. But there is an excitement in Smoak’s voice as he looks toward a season which opens today at 6 p.m. when the Dogs meet Cary (N.C.) Academy in the first round of the three-day Florence Tennis Association tournament. The annual pre-season event is loaded with some of the top programs in the Carolinas.
Call it a baptism under fire for a Camden squad which lists just one senior, an eighth-grader and a trio of seventh-graders on its 10-player roster. The Dogs will start a seventh-grader at fourth singles, a freshman at number five and, quite possibly, another seventh-grader in second doubles.
“We’re rebuilding with quality kids and we are young, which is a good sign for us,” said Smoak, who enters the regular season with 573 wins as the school’s boys’ coach. That number does not include those he amassed when he coached the Lady Bulldogs.
“These kids have been working really hard and they have a chance to be really good. Hopefully, by the end of this year, we’ll have gained that experience and we’ll be a much-stronger team than we are now.”
Camden must replace the school’s all-time leader in tennis wins in Jo Jo Tiller along with fellow six-year player, Davis Goodrich. Combined, that duo won more than 125 singles’ matches and helped lead the team to a 99-16 record over the past six seasons. During that stretch, Camden played for three Upper State or Lower State championships and in one state title match
“Unless you have a really, really deep team, you can’t replace players like that in one year,” Smoak said of his team’s two losses to graduation from last year’s 14-4 squad which bowed out of the state tourney in a second round loss to Chapin.
With such a young group and a tough eight-match conference schedule, Smoak has toned down the non-conference slate a tad this season. The list of matches is one which will allow the Dogs to develop at a reasonable pace once the regular season begins. “I’ve given our team a competitive schedule, but one which is realistic since we play such a tough region schedule. I think we can compete with everybody on our schedule,” said Smoak, who said his team has not changed its goal of “winning a region title, making the playoffs, have a winning season and have fun.”
 As for what awaits this weekend in Florence, all bets are off.
Scheduled to join Camden this weekend in the Florence event are programs such as Providence Day from the Charlotte area, Lexington, Dutch Fork, Chapin, Clover Spartanburg,  Waccamaw and West Florence, other others.
“Those are the best teams and what tennis is all about in North Carolina and South Carolina. Any of those schools could win their state championship,” Smoak said of the field in Florence.
The Bulldogs may have some unanswered questions going into the season, but one of them is not who will be the unquestioned team leader. When the team cast its votes for captain, Roderick Todd was the unanimous choice. That feat, Smoak said, is something which he cannot recall being done recently and said it shows the respect Todd has among his teammates.
Todd, a sixth-year player, enters his senior campaign as the number one singles player and first doubles performer. As a junior, he shrugged off two injury-riddled seasons to post a 10-7 record at second singles. Smoak said Todd is ready for the challenge at playing at the top of the ladder.
“We depend on Roderick, not only for good play but for leadership. With all of our young kids, we need his leadership,” Smoak said of his team’s lone senior. “He’s had some tough luck with injuries in the past; we need to keep him healthy and well this season.”
The team’s two juniors will also be asked to play roles as leaders, both on and off the court. Ben Goodrich makes the jump from fifth singles to third singles while 6-foot-3, 225-pound Charlie Nash will, again, be an imposing figure in second doubles.
Goodrich is coming off a breakout 13-4 campaign in 2012 while Nash, who plays offensive tackle in the fall for the Bulldogs, is in his second season on the team after playing five doubles matches last spring
“Ben has done a great job for us. He’s going to be an improved player,” Smoak said of Goodrich. “He’s making a big jump from fifth to third singles. Most teams have a very good player playing third singles, but we’re expecting good year out of Ben. He is a good competitor with a positive attitude and plays hard every match.”
“Charlie was a nice surprise for us last year,” Smoak said of Nash. “We need him to stabilize our second doubles team and be an intimidating force at the net --- that’s where he is best at --- playing at the net and putting balls away. “
Sophomore Nelson Semple is back for his fourth year as a starter and moves from third to second singles after posting a 14-3 mark as a freshman in his former post. Also a starter in Camden’s defensive secondary last football season, Semple is giving Todd a run for his money at first singles while will team with Todd at first doubles.
“Nelson has everything you need to be an outstanding player,” Smoak said. “He’s an outstanding athlete who is big and strong. He has good strokes, a knowledge of the game and just has everything that it takes to be a really good player and competitor.”
 Fellow sophomore Thomas deLoach, another fourth-year player, was 2-1 in singles last year while seeing most of his time in second doubles. He is expected to see time in both disciplines this time around.
“Thomas can play singles or doubles, but wherever he plays, we’re depending on him to win points for us because he has the experience,” Smoak said. “He has a good game and a good head for tennis. He just needs to develop a sense of confidence that he can win tough matches. Once he does that, I think he’s going to really help us.”
Freshman Thomas Marshall played in three doubles matches in 2012, but has taken his game to another level and has locked down the fifth singles post. He has shown plenty of improvement and honed his game in the off-season, which has left his coach impressed with his work ethic and skills.
“Thomas is one of those kids who really loves tennis and has worked very hard,” Smoak said. “He just needs to learn to get more depth on his shots and get more experience, which comes with playing in matches. He has to settle down, play his game and be steady.”
Smoak has four middle school players on the roster which, he said, is the sign of a healthy program which has help on the way.
Mac Lindsay played in two doubles matches as a seventh-grader and split those. Now, he looks to get more court time. “Mac has surprised me this year; he’s really improved,” Smoak said of Lindsay. “He has a lot of self-confidence that he can get the job done. He believes in himself and that he can win every match.”
Of the trio of seventh-graders, Robert Lackey is the one who has made his presence felt the quickest as he has played his way to starting at fourth singles. Count Smoak as being impressed with what he has seen out of Lackey.
“I knew that Robert could play tennis, but I didn’t know that he could be as competitive as he’s been out there,” he said. “He’s a real good athlete, very competitive and a very smart player. We’re excited about him. The sky’s the limit as to what kind of player he can be. He can be an extremely good player if he works at it. We’re excited about getting him.”
The same could be said about classmates Gus Allen and K.P. Cassidy, two young players that Smoak was not expecting to come out for the team.  Allen, who plays football and wrestles at Camden Middle School, has played his way into the rotation at second doubles. Cassidy is also a wrestler for CMS. Smoak said he likes the athletic ability this entire class brings to the tennis court with them.
“Gus is such an athletic kid. He’s built like a football player, but he plays like a tennis player. I think Gus can be an extremely good tennis player if he sets his mind to it,” Smoak said. “K.P. is also a very athletic kid. He just needs to get stronger, but he’s very consistent in keeping the ball in play. He’s competitive and will get playing time at number two doubles.
“The thing I like about these seventh-graders is that they are all good athletes. Sometimes, you get kids who are that young and are just good tennis players. But these kids are all very athletic, have good hand-to-eye coordination and can all move their feet. When you have that, you have the chance to have some real good players.”
Smoak said he likes the demeanor of this squad saying that this is a “high character group.” He also said that for those who make their way to the matches, they will like what they see from this edition of the Bulldog tennis team
 “I think that if people come out and support this team, they will see some fun tennis because these kids really compete,” he said. “If you like tennis, I can guarantee you that you will like this team because they are competitive and are never going to give up. They’re going to work hard.

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