As the Cox Mill High School boys tennis team was preparing for its match with Hickory Ridge a couple weeks ago, the Chargers' No. 1-seeded singles player, sophomore Sam Xin, was notably absent.
Coach Bob Cachine had no problem excusing his top player's absence, though. Xin was answering a higher calling.
Xin likes tennis, but he loves chess. And chess is easily the pastime in which he is most accomplished.
After the U.S. Chess Federation's National High School Championships April 16-18 in Columbus, Ohio, Xin ranks in the top 50 in the U.S. in his age group. His coach, Chris Mabe, said Xin's personal ranking of 2,000-plus points puts him in the top 5percent of players of all ages in the country.
You'd skip a tennis match for that, too, wouldn't you?
Xin and his family moved from China six years ago. They briefly lived in Charlotte before moving to Concord. He said he first played chess with his grandfather in China, then picked it up again from a teacher at Wolf Meadow Elementary School.
Xin met Mabe at a local tournament, and his parents asked Mabe to be their son's coach. Mabe is now a life master and coaches in the Charlotte Mecklenburg Scholastic Chess Association.
The two get together at Xin's house on Saturdays for about two hours. Xin also practices on his own, usually against a computer program.
"If he's played in some games, we go over the games," said Mabe. "We go over what he could have done better and what thoughts he had in different positions. Or we might follow some master games that have a theme on some strategic point of a game.
"All I ask of him is that he does the homework and he studies on his own to fix the weak spots in his game."
Chess players attain their rating by beating higher-rated players. Mabe said that Xin's rating stayed between 1,900 and 2,000 for about a year and half until it recently eclipsed 2,000, which classified him as an "expert" player.
A scholastic state champion in 2008, Xin competed in the annual National High School Championships a couple of weeks ago. Out of 323 competitors, Xin won five of seven matches to tie for 15th place with 32 other players.
He is also a member of the Queen City Chess Club, a group for all ages. He attends weekly meetings in Charlotte when his heavy school workload doesn't interfere.
During the early part of the season, chess again temporarily prevailed over tennis as Xin asked Cachine whether he could leave a practice early so that he could get to a Queen City meeting.
The Cox Mill tennis coach has no problem with Xin's overlapping schedules. Xin's work ethic on the tennis court is nearly as strong as his dedication to chess.
"When he's on the tennis court, he's locked in, and he is strictly business," said Cachine. "I've never seen him with any of his chess stuff, but he tells me how important it is to him, and he apologized for not being here for the (Hickory Ridge) match. I wouldn't want to hold him back if he's going to compete nationally. There is no distraction that I can see as a coach."
Xin said he started playing tennis just a couple of years ago. He was good enough to be the No. 4 singles player on Northwest Cabarrus' team last year.
He couldn't remember his win-loss record, but Xin said he didn't have a strong season for the Trojans. Last summer, he participated in a tennis academy at Concord's Les Myers Park, which sharpened his skills. Then he was reassigned to the new Cox Mill High.
Xin is the No. 1 singles player on a team that has no seniors, one junior, three sophomores and three freshmen. Only the three sophomores had ever played high school tennis before this season.
As the No. 1 player, he was charged with facing every other team's top players, whose number of years of experience easily eclipse Xin's. He finished the season with a 6-9 individual record and was named to the all-conference team.
"I just plan on playing more in both (sports) and hope that I get better," he said.