Titan tennis succeeds with grassroots effort

by Chris Hunt

The 2011 Hopewell boys tennis team has won the last two I-MECK 4A conference championships. Chris Hunt/MIM photo

Hopewell coach Craig Smith would be the first to admit that his boys tennis team didn’t exactly scare the competition in pre-game warmups. The 2011 Titans didn’t have players with blistering backhands or intimidating power serves.

Then again, it’s not as if the Titans needed those skills to be successful this spring.

Smith’s bunch proved a squad doesn’t have to be loaded with high-caliber players to win in high school tennis. Without a single college-recruited player on its roster, Hopewell captured a school-record 18 victories and advanced to the quarterfinals of the Class 4A state dual-team tournament for the first time in the program’s 10-year history.

“I’ve had more individual talent on teams in the past, but what sets this team apart is its maturity and dedication off the court,” said Smith. “This team is special in that they held themselves to a high standard for the good of the team. I told them all year long that they had to look each other in the eye and know everyone was working as hard as the next player.”

So what’s the Titans’ secret to success?

While Smith would prefer to credit his players, one of the key ingredients is the amount of time and effort he spends working with his players. Since taking the helm six seasons ago, Smith has been a no-excuses kind of coach – not so much because he demands excellence from his players but more because he expects it of himself. Hopewell athletics director Jamie Billings said few high school tennis coaches can match Smith’s determination and work ethic.

“Craig is a tireless worker,” said Billings. “A lot of coaches are fortunate to have great players and win matches, but Craig found kids with little experience who would work hard and turned them into great tennis players. Most winning teams have six (U.S. Tennis Association) players, but we did just fine without them.”

Smith saw potential in his inexperienced roster this season, and he drilled players on strategy and fundamentals through the offseason and even on weekends. Saturday workouts were common this spring.

And, oh, how it paid off.

Team captain John David Curliss is the most seasoned player among the top six. The senior was an all-conference choice the past three seasons, but he rose to the Titans’ top seed after hours of working with Smith – not learning from a high-priced tennis pro or competing in USTA tournaments on the weekends.

And he isn’t the only homegrown Titan.

Three of Hopewell’s top players – seniors Tyler Roberts, Danny Wintermeier and Chris Hourihan – didn’t even compete in organized tennis until their junior seasons. Smith recruited the trio from the Hopewell hallways two seasons ago as athletes and refined their games with hours of drills.

Roberts, Hopewell’s No. 2 seed, was known as a standout soccer player. In his first season of organized tennis, he won the 2010 I-MECK 4A conference singles tournament, advancing to regionals. Wintermeier also played on the soccer team in 2010 but is more than athletic enough to make up for his lack of tennis experience – even if it isn’t pretty.

“Danny has the most unorthodox serve on the team,” said Smith with a laugh. “He’s a lanky kid, but he gets so low with his legs before he goes after the ball. I’m sure his opponents look at him and say, ‘What in the world is he doing?’ But Danny had the least number of double faults on the team this season.”

Smith’s belief in his unorthodox-but-gritty players was rewarded with back-to-back I-MECK 4A conference championships the last two years. For the second consecutive year, the Titans were undefeated in league play, posting a 109-8 mark in singles matches.

Hopewell’s dominance of the conference was never more obvious than in the I-MECK tournament. This year’s doubles finals featured Hopewell’s top four seeds – Roberts and John Armato defeated teammates Curlis and Brian Andersen. And Hopewell’s No. 5 singles player, Wintermeier, advanced to regionals with a fourth-place effort in the league’s singles bracket.

So it’s easy to see that the Titans’ strength was their depth. The top seeds didn’t overpower the opposition, but the bottom four seeds of Andersen (a two-time all-conference selection), Armato (a 2011 all-conference performer), Wintermeier and Hourihan won more than 16 matches each this season.

“We weren’t a team smoking winners on the court,” said Smith. “If you saw our warmups before matches, you’d think the other team would win easily. We knew to have success this season, we had to put in more time in practice than other teams. We had to outwork everyone.”

The blue-collar Titans still managed to catch everyone’s attention across the state. Hopewell finished the regular season 10th in the N.C. High School Tennis Coaches Association rankings and is expected to remain among the top 10 when the final poll is released. The tandem of Roberts and Armato was the first Hopewell doubles team to advance to the state tournament.

But it’s the team’s resume that really sticks out with big team wins over strong Lake Norman and Watauga high schools. Hopewell’s 5-1 victory over Greensboro Grimsley in the second round of the state playoffs was especially sweet. It was, by far, Smith’s favorite win of the 2011 campaign.

“In 2006, we lost to Grimsley in the second round,” said Smith. “We got smoked by them, so that’s why it was so great for us to beat them this year.”

The Titans’ dream season ended in the state quarterfinals with a loss to Ardrey Kell, 6-0, on May 17, but Hopewell didn’t finish on the losing side often in 2011. Its only losses were to state powers Myers Park, Providence, Ardrey Kell and two-time defending state champion Winston-Salem Reynolds.

But each one of those defeats had something in common with every match the Titans won this season. Having had a front row seat, Smith summed up the similarities in one sentence.
“We made them earn every point they won,” said Smith.

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