Kevin Baker had been waiting three years to have a breakout season for the Hickory Ridge boys' tennis team. As he accomplished his goal this past season, he distinguished himself from two sets of contemporaries.
Baker qualified for the 3A state singles tournament, making him the only South Piedmont Conference player to do so this year.
The product of a tennis-playing family, Baker also became the first among his siblings, who both starred in high school tennis, to reach the state tournament.
This summer, Baker will work on his game at the Charlotte Racquet Club North in Huntersville and play in occasional junior tournaments to get better for next season.
The son of Mike and Janet Baker of Harrisburg, Baker didn't have much of a choice when it came to liking tennis. Both parents play in leagues in Charlotte and the Lake Norman area.
In fact, playing tennis often became a family event, and that's how he first picked up a racket about six years ago.
"When I got started, I just played for fun," said Baker. "I wasn't serious about it. As I started playing more and more, I got more serious about it."
Baker's sister, Kristin, and his brother, Kyle, preceded him on the high school courts, both playing at Central Cabarrus. Kristin reached the 4A regionals as a senior in 2008 and Kyle qualified for regionals in doubles as a senior in 2010.
When Baker arrived at Hickory Ridge as the tennis team's fourth seed, Ragin' Bulls coach Lacy Huffling says even opposing coaches predicted he would be a state-caliber player by the time he became an upper-classman.
As a freshman, he earned the first of three all-conference nods and finished with a 13-2 singles mark. Baker and Travis Deal, then a junior, tried to qualify for regionals as a doubles team but fell short.
Baker moved up to the third spot on the team as a sophomore. Huffling said Baker was able to put a little more zing on his shots and that he became more accurate with his placement.
Baker matched his singles record from the year before and was named all-conference. At the South Piedmont Conference tournament, which serves as a qualifier for regionals, Baker fell one victory short of qualifying. He vowed that wouldn't happen again the next season.
Playing the top flight for Hickory Ridge this past season, Baker faced the best players in the conference. He lost twice to Jay M. Robinson's Michael Dalton and split with players from Concord, Cox Mill and Northwest Cabarrus.
While some of his regular-season opponents played with their doubles partners at the conference tournament, Baker chose the singles draw. He won the SPC singles tournament, qualifying for the Midwest Regional, where he finished fourth, securing one of the region's four slots at the state tournament.
Baker lost his first match at the state 3A tourney to wrap up his junior season.
Baker hopes for a better showing next year, knowing there's room for improvement in his volleying, overheads and second serve.
"I think I have a pretty big serve," he said. "I have power ground strokes, and I can push if I need to. My backhand is probably my biggest shot, and my forehand is pretty good. I'm not a person that comes to the net much but I'm trying to do that more and more."