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Smoak, Camden netters eyeing a return to state playoffs

Bulldogs hope to be a factor in state’s deepest AAA loop

Posted: March 18, 2014 11:23 a.m.
Updated: March 19, 2014 5:00 a.m.

ROGER SMOAK IS CLOSING in on 600 wins as Camden High’s boys tennis coach.

When you have been coaching for better than 40 years, you have a feel as to how to handle your squad and what it will take for that group to be successful.
Throughout his tenure as the head coach of the Camden High boys’ tennis team, Roger Smoak has also taken the approach of improving with each match so that the Bulldogs would be peaking at the right time, i.e., for the AAA state playoffs.
This time around, however, the state’s all-time winningest tennis coach is stripping it down even more. With three of his team’s seven starters still in middle school, Smoak is not leaving anything to chance when it comes to guiding this team down its 18-match path.
“Our motto is, “Get better every day,” Smoak said of the 2014 campaign, his 44th at the Bulldog helm. “We want to improve with every practice and every match. If we can do that, we’ll be all right.”
In all of Smoak’s years on the job, his Dogs may have never been a part of such as a deep conference as they are in now in Region 4-AAA. Camden, which missed the state tournament last season, will vie for one of the four post-season berths allotted to each circuit in the expanded state playoffs.
Region 4-AAA is loaded with talent starting with pre-season favorite A.C. Flora, which handed CHS a 4-2 loss in the season opener. Then you have a strong River Bluff entry, which owns a 5-1 win over the Dogs.  Going down the line you have Chapin, the 2011 and 2012 AAA state champion and last year’s Lower State champ. Throw in an improving Dreher squad along with Camden and a first-year Westwood program and the circuit may well be the equivalent of the SEC football conference in the state’s AAA tennis ranks.
“You can’t help who’s in your region,” Smoak said of his team’s slate. “I really believe it’s the toughest region in the state. I don’t think there’s a conference that can match up with us. We have five teams that could compete for a playoff spot and a long run in the state playoffs.
“I don’t know of another region that has that. Maybe, some may have two good teams at the top.”
With 585 victories as the CHS boys’ coach under his belt, Smoak said he cannot remember a pre-season as tough as this one given two snow storms, cold days and bad weather which have forced his team inside for about half their allotted practices. In that respect, Smoak said, most tennis teams in the state are in the same boat.
Once the matches began, Camden headed to Florence for the always strong Florence Tennis Association preseason tournament. After a slow start, things picked up for the Dogs with a final match win coming after three losses, the second and third being much better performances than the opener.
“Everybody got a taste for winning, which is what you like to see,” Smoak said. “We want to get better with every match and, we certainly did that in that tournament.”
Smoak welcomed nine players to the fold when practice began this season with four returning starters, three of whom were moving up in the rotation. While the numbers are not great, Smoak was grateful that he had two extra players to fill out the roster. By the same token, staying healthy will be critical for the Bulldogs if they are to make a return to the post-season. “We’ll go as far as our bottom guys will take us. You have to win on the bottom because you can’t win at the top every match,” he said.
With several players having come from other sports teams in the fall and winter seasons, Smoak said his team did not get in as much off-season work as some of his previous squads. What the Bulldogs lack for in experience, however, they will make up for in athleticism and other traits; all of which will come in handy, said their head coach.
 “The biggest thing we have going for us,” he said, “and, we have a lot going against us with a strong region, our youth and not enough work in the off-season … is that we have good leadership. Ben Goodrich is our captain and has done a good job. Also, the attitude of our players; they want to win.
“We’re going to be competitive and they’re going to improve. As long as you have a good attitude and work hard every day, you are going to have a chance. If we can stay healthy, I feel that we can be competitive with about anybody we play.”
Playing three matches most weeks leaves one day of practice each week for Camden. A rainy spring season could throw a wrench into the plans for improving each day. One of the main areas on which Smoak and assistant coaches Ralph Brinson and Neil Vroegop have focused on has been the team’s serving which was a sore spot in Florence but has improved since then.
In Goodrich, the team’s lone senior, the Bulldogs have a player who has taken the opportunity to become a leader while moving from third to second singles. Last season, Goodrich posted an 8-7 record in singles play, a mark which both he and Smoak hope will improve this time around. His 3-1 record in Florence was a positive sign.
“Ben is one of those guys who goes out there and works hard every day. He makes the most of his ability,” Smoak said. “I think Ben has improved from last year. He is a good leader and he has a good all-around game. We need his leadership on and off court and for him to play good, steady tennis for us.”
Nelson Semple, a junior who is coming off a 13-2 campaign at second singles and was 2-0 in doubles as a sophomore, is a fifth-year starter who is making the move to the top of the ladder. Armed with a big serve, the starting safety for the CHS football team brings plenty of toughness to the court with him.
“Nelson is one of the few guys with have with a lot of tennis experience,” Smoak said of Semple. “We know if we are going to have a chance to win a match, Nelson has to, pretty much, win for us.
“He’s such a great athlete and you know he’s going to compete every match. It takes a pretty good player to beat him. He probably has one of the strongest serves we’ve had here in a long time or, ever.”
Another junior, Thomas deLoach, has played his way into the third singles post after having won 12 of his 16 singles matches, primarily at fourth singles, a year ago. He showed his mental and physical toughness by going 4-0 in tie-breakers and 3-0 in three-set matches.
“Thomas had a great year last year, but has gotten off to a slow start this year,” Smoak said. “His confidence is not where it should be, yet. He has a good all-around game. He has experience and he’s a strong kid. He just has to get his confidence back.”
After having been as reserve a year ago, in which he posted a 4-1 record in singles with four more victories in double, sophomore Thomas Marshall started this season at fourth singles.  Smoak said he likes the way Marshall is letting the game come to him rather than trying to force the issue.
“Thomas plays year ‘round and he has the game and a little bit of experience,” he said. “Once he get his mental game under control to where he’s not beating himself … he likes to hit the ball hard sometimes, when he does not have the shots. He just has to learn how to keep the ball in the court; if he does that, he’s going to have a fine season for us.”
Fellow sophomore Will Conder was a late addition to the team and will provide depth. He is working hard at trying to catch up with his fellow teammates.  “Will be has really been a pleasant surprise,” Smoak said. “I am impressed with his attitude and his hard work.”
Freshman Mac Lindsay hit a growth spurt in the off season and is making his case for playing time after having won two doubles matches last spring. Smoak said he could see the changes in Lindsay’s game right away.
“Mac has shown improvement from last year,” Smoak said. “Some of it is size because he’s grown and getting stronger. He has a lot of confidence in himself. He believes he can win and that’s a big part of it.”
The Dogs opened the season with a pair of eighth-graders, Robert Lackey and K. P. Cassidy, playing at second doubles. The two were late arrivals to having played on the Camden Middle School basketball and wrestling teams, respectively, and then, having gone away on a class trip.
Lackey played most of the 2013 season at fifth singles, fashioning a 10-5 record as a seventh-grader. Cassidy, his cousin, posted two wins in doubles and another in singles play last year.
“Robert has been a good pressure player for us. He can play under pressure,” Smoak said. “He has a really good game and just needs to keep practicing. Until you get back in the groove, your strokes are going to be off, a little bit and his strokes are off, just a little. I expect him to compete for a singles position. If he stays at doubles, it will certainly help because you need that.”
Cassidy may well be the most in-shape athlete on the team given that he ran cross-country for the Bulldogs in the fall before wrestling in the winter months for CMS. 
“K.P.’s a really good little athlete,” Smoak said. “He’s a competitor. He wants to play and he competes. He doesn’t give in and he’s one of the quickest kids and one of the best-conditioned kids we have on our team.”
A pleasant surprise and new addition to the squad is Wilson Pope, a seventh-grader who Smoak had heard about last year and worked with a year ago. Smoak said he knew how good Pope was but the youngster turned heads when he arrived for practice.
“I knew he was going to be competitive. I wasn’t surprised, but I think he surprised some of our kids when he came out there,” Smoak said of Pope. “He doesn’t have a big game, now, but he has a steady game. He’s one of those backboards and keeps getting the ball back. If you don’t hit it hard or put it away, you’re going to get it back. He’s going to get to it and get it back to you.”
Preaching to his team the importance of being good sports and having fun on the courts, Smoak has seen both qualities in all his players. He said the team’s goal is to return to the state playoffs while defending their home court each time out.
Smoak said he really enjoys the makeup of this squad and hopes that fans will come out to take in the matches, as well.
“I hope everybody will come out and support us,” he said. “We have a great group of fans from our school and community. I think they will be very pleased with the effort and the caliber of play.
“Our kids are also very good sports. This is going to be a fun year for me because if you have a good attitude, good sportsmanship and work hard on the court, it’s going to be a good year.”


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