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Bulldogs pulled together in carving out a memorable campaign on the courts

Posted: May 27, 2011 11:14 a.m.
Updated: May 30, 2011 5:00 a.m.

Five days after his team lost to Bluffton in the second round of the AAA state tennis playoffs, Camden head coach Roger Smoak took a Sunday afternoon drive. While passing by the Rectory Square tennis courts, he saw five of his players (including four returnees) out on the court playing doubles.

That, said the state’s all-time winningest tennis coach, spoke volumes as to the character of his 2001 squad which turned in a 19-1 record in a season in which the Bulldogs played with the bare minimum seven players, at times.

In a year in which CHS was without their starting second singles player for 13 matches and then, minus the player who moved into fifth singles --- both due to injuries --- Smoak had to get maximum effort from the seven healthy players on his roster. At season’s end, he said, none of those young men disappointed him.

"I can’t say enough about our kids. It was an enjoyable year," said Smoak, whose win count grew to 559 this spring. "It just goes to show what you can accomplish when you have good kids who work hard and have good attitudes. They believed in themselves and had confidence in themselves and went out there and made something good happen."

Smoak said the Bulldogs could have mailed it in when, for the second time is as many years, a knee injury forced second singles player Roderick Todd out of the lineup for 13 matches. No sooner had the sophomore gone on the disabled list than Thomas deLoach twisted an ankle which sent him the sidelines. In both instances, the Dogs never skipped a beat as players who were not being heavily counted on prior to the season, took their turns in going from role players to relied-on contributors.

"To have gone 19-1 was almost unbelievable for our kids," Smoak said. "A lesser team could have folded when Roderick went down and then, when Thomas got hurt after that. We didn’t use those injuries as an excuse. You can either use that as an excuse or find a way to win. Our kids stepped up. We had kids who wanted to play, who wanted to be good and who wanted to accomplish goals."

Camden did just that. In playing their first full season on the CHA Athletic Complex courts, the Bulldogs met their goals of winning the Region 6-AAA title, finishing unbeaten in the regular season and on their home courts and having fun while enjoying the game of tennis.

The only goal which, Smoak said, was not met in full was that of advancing as far as the team could in the post-season. The 4-2 second round loss to Bluffton was, literally, the lone blemish when it comes to the 2011 Bulldogs.

"The only goal we set and it was not a specific goal was to go as far as we could in the playoffs. I didn’t feel like we did that because we should have won that last match," Smoak said. "That was the only goal we didn’t meet.

"When you have one bad match in an entire season, you can’t fault that too much, although it came at a bad time. Most teams have more than one bad match; that day in Bluffton, we didn’t have a really bad match. We just didn’t play to our capability against Bluffton. It wasn’t because our kids didn’t try hard that match. It was just a case of ‘sometimes you’ve got it and sometimes, you don’t.’ That was one of those matches that we didn’t play as well as we should have, for whatever reason."

The loss of Todd reduced the Dogs to having just two players with much singles action to speak of after the team lost three singles’ players to graduation after winning the AAA Lower State title in 2010. Knowing that his team was inexperienced save for junior Jo Jo Tiller at first singles and senior Micah Thomas, who was bumped from third into Todd’s second singles post, Smoak adjusted his regular season schedule.

In 2011, there was not an Irmo or a Spring Valley to be found on regular season slate. Smoak said he will probably beef the schedule up in 2012.

Tiller, who made the jump from third to first singles, turned in his second consecutive 18-0 season. He was also 7-0 in doubles, including winning four times with Thomas as his partner. In his six seasons as a Bulldog, the 2011 All-State performer has a 75-3 singles mark to go along with a 21-0 doubles record. His 96 victories is one shy of tying his brother Cauthen (CHS ’10) as the winningest player in school history.

"It all starts at the top and it really helps when you have a great number one player like we had in Jo Jo," Smoak said of Tiller who won 217 of his 250 games (.870 winning percentage) in singles and did not havea three-set match.

"Jo Jo is an extremely consistent player who has all the shots and is extremely tough mentally. He is also a great doubles player."

Thomas, who transferred to CHS for his junior year, led the Dogs with a 20-0 mark in singles (most of those in the second spot) while finishing with a 24-0 overall record when doubles were added to the equation.

"Micah was just fantastic for us," Smoak said of Thomas, who, along with Tiller, was a team co-captain. "He was one of those fighters who refused to give up. That was evident in the Bluffton match when he got cramps, but was still fighting to the end.

"We’ll miss Micah a lot. He brought a lot to the table and was a great player for two years for us."

Todd went 5-2 this season. He injured a knee in the fourth match and did not return to the rotation until the regular season finale. Smoak was left to wonder, "what if" had Todd been healthy all season long.

"Roderick was on his way to having a good season. He just didn’t have enough time to get back to 100 percent," Smoak said. "He’s been a tough-luck player for us. But he loves to play the game and he has a lot of ability and all the strokes.

"We’re looking forward to Roderick having an injury-free season next year. That would be a big plus for us."

After having started the season at fifth singles, eighth-grader Nelson Semple moved to fourth singles. He finished his second year on the team with a 16-4 mark. Playing one slot behind him was junior Davis Goodrich, whose 17-2 slate was third-best on a team which went a combined 85-15 in singles play.

"Nelson was one of our most improved players," Smoak said of Semple. "He has always had good potential but, last year he was just a bit inconsistent. This year, he was much more consistent. He had some lapses this year, but his strokes were so much better. He just needs to get more mentally tough. He has a lot of talent and he’s going to get better and better. He has a big upside to his game.

"Davis had a great year; he was a very consistent player for us. We felt very good about getting that point when Davis went out there. I really feel that he will have a great season, again, next year."

One of the most pleasant surprises for Smoak was the play of senior Bryan Williams and freshman Ben Goodrich, the Dogs’ primary second doubles tandem. The pair fashioned a 10-3 record. Individually, Williams was 2-0 in singles play while Goodrich scored a win in his lone singles outing.

"I was pleased with our doubles play this year. We’ve been down there the past few years," Smoak said.

"I was really glad that Bryan came out because he’s a big, strong kid who hadn’t played much organized tennis. He was perfect for doubles because he was so strong at the net. He just had to learn the game and get more experience.

"Bryan will be tough to replace because he was a strong senior. He was the missing piece that we needed in order to have a good team."

As for Goodrich, Smoak said he saw plenty to like in his improved play.

"Ben really came on strong," he said. "He was inconsistent at the beginning of the year when he was just learning to play doubles. He really became more consistent and a leader on the court as the season went on. I was impressed with Ben this year."

The injury bug also bit deLoach, whose twisted ankle took him out of fifth singles after having worked his way into that slot. Still, he finished with a 5-2 record. With deLoach and Todd out of the lineup, it opened the door for Shamell Rose, an eighth-grader, to earn playing time at fifth singles. He won his first match of his career in a tie-breaker against Wilson.

Smoak said the future is bright for both players.

"Thomas was one of our most improved players. From the beginning of year to the end, he developed a tremendous amount of confidence in himself. He found out that he could play with the big boys, so to speak," he said of deLoach. "If continues to work, the sky will be the limit for him."

When talking about Rose, Smoak smiled in telling the tale of a player who had to be taught the game of tennis from the ground up.

"Shamell didn’t know how to keep score when he first came out. He was completely new to tennis," Smoak said. "I don’t know that I’ve ever had a kid improve in just two months as much as Shamell. It usually takes a year to two years for a kid to just get out there and play, but in two months, he was playing number five for us.

"He was showing tremendous improvement. He received a real quick dose of tennis from Coach (Ralph) Brinson. Coach Brinson did a great job with Shamell and Shamell did a great job getting to where he could compete. He has a great attitude and wants to get better. He stays out on the court after practice … he loves to practice. I’m tickled to death that we got him. With a lot of hard work, he’s going to be a good player for us."

Smoak credited Brinson for not only his work with Rose this past season, but for the time the coach has put in with all the players in the program over the past few years.

"Coach Brinson has really helped us out a great deal the last few years, especially this year, though, in getting Shamell ready to play," Smoak said. "He’s an inspiration to the kids. He loves tennis and he loves working with our kids."

Smoak also thanked the CHS administration, athletic director Jimmy Neal and, especially the parents, relatives and fans who have continued their support of the program. They were all treated to a more than memorable campaign.

"It was one of the best seasons that we’ve had. You can’t do much better than what we did," he said.

"This team will be special because I don’t think anybody expected us to do this well except for the team and the coaches. After losing five players last year and three starters in singles, you would not have thought that we would be as strong a team as we were this year. But our kids rose to the occasion and met the challenge. They played as tough as they needed to in order to win matches.

"This team played to their ability and to the amount of experience they had as well as any team that we’ve ever had."

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