When Hopewell tennis coach Craig Smith convinced Tyler Roberts to pick up a racket and play last year, he admits he wasn't expecting much.
But Roberts, a senior this season, surprised Smith and even himself by going on to win the I-Meck tournament singles championship in only his first year of playing organized tennis.
"I really didn't expect to have all the success I had because coming into the sport I thought it would be hard to pick it up right away," said Roberts.
Having only taken tennis classes at a young age, Roberts admits his main focus was to help his team win matches as the No. 5 player for the Titans.
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But he started seeing success almost immediately, going on to finish 20-2 in singles play and 11-1 in doubles alongside John Armato.
Smith said Roberts was able to win matches all season because of his competitiveness, athleticism and ability to cover the court well.
At the conference tournament, Roberts got on a roll defeating other schools' No. 1 and 2 players.
"I was shocked that he was able to beat the level of players that he did," said Smith.
Not having any pressure or expectations on his shoulders, Roberts was able to grow confident as he defeated his increasingly frustrated opponents.
"You could see them thinking, 'How in the world am I losing to this guy?'" said Smith. "It was really a special two days of tennis for him."
But knowing he won't be overlooked and that he will have to play at a higher level this season, Roberts dedicated himself to improving his play in the offseason
"He made it a point to spend time on his game," said Smith. "Now, he's going to be able to use more tennis strategy."
Roberts explained that he will have to also find a way to play with the extra pressure.
"I'm going to have to find that balance so that I can be loose like I was at the conference tournament - feeling like I have nothing to lose," he said.
Roberts, who starts the year as the No. 2 player on the team behind four-year varsity player John David Curlis, has set lofty goals, wanting to go undefeated in the conference - both in singles and doubles - and wanting to repeat as the conference tournament champion.
"I want to build on my success from last year," he said. "It's a high level to live up to, but I'm totally up for that."
The Titans as a whole also have set their sights high, as they hope to repeat as conference champions. But they're also focused on beating their opponents at tie-breakers and bonding as a team.
Although they lost all-conference players Matt Alexander and Jeremy Anderson from last season's team that finished 15-2 (5-0 in the I-Meck), the Titans return a solid group of seniors, led by Curlis, Roberts and Brian Andersen.
Smith said Armato, a junior who's No. 4 for the Titans, has impressed him the most so far this season.
"Everybody's going to be gunning for us," said Smith. "We have a target on our back after the success we had last year."
Lake Norman should have one of the most talented teams in the I-Meck behind Drew Harmon's play. Former North Mecklenburg player Collin Black and his Hough team should also be solid, while Jake Combs and Mooresville could be a wildcard in the conference.
"It's going to be a competitive conference season," said Smith. "We're going to get put in some tight matches. Whoever in the conference can win those 5-4 matches is going to come out on top."
Smith hopes his squad, which boasts five of the top 17 students in the senior class, will play intelligently during matches.
"We have to use that as our strength when we get out on the court," said Smith.
"We have to be smart about our strategy and the things that we do."
Roberts could play a big part if Hopewell will have another successful year.
"I think he puts us on his shoulders to keep emotions high for everyone," said Smith. "The team feeds off of that."