Even as a freshman, Mooresville tennis coach Tim Smith saw potential in Jake Combs. He knew one day he would be his team's No. 1 player.
"He's an excellent tennis player - he's a good guy," said Smith. "That's very important in this sport, which breeds a lot of prima donnas. He's definitely not a prima donna."
After starting out as the No. 6 player for the Blue Devils his freshman year, Combs stepped up to the No. 2 spot as a sophomore last year, going undefeated in the regular season.
"I was really happy with that," he said. "I wish I could have done better at conference, but I played well overall."
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Combs' performance on the tennis court earned him all-conference honors.
"It was surprising to get that as a sophomore," he admits.
Although Combs had personal success, he's still disappointed by how last season ended for the Devils. After starting the year 9-0, Mooresville finished with a 0-4 record down the stretch, preventing them from reaching the playoff for the first time in 16 seasons.
"We just got a little too overconfident," said Combs. "We just kind of lost it from there. It was tough."
His coach shared that sentiment.
"It was a disaster; it was the most disappointing year I've ever had in coaching," said Smith.
Combs said the team learned from the let down of last season.
"We have to learn from our mistakes and improve on that," said Combs. "Nobody's perfect; you can always do better."
Combs is back to lead a young Blue Devil tennis team as its No. 1 player on the court this season.
Smith said Combs is "by far" the team's most talented player, adding his versatility makes him difficult to beat.
"He can win from the baseline, but he can also win at the net," said Smith. "He's got a good all-around game."
But what separates Combs on the court is the work he puts in to get better.
"When you're dealing with 16- and 17-year-olds, a lot of them don't want it, but he wants it," said Smith. "That desire can make a huge difference."
The 16-year-old plays year-long. In addition to the high school season, he has been playing competitively for nearly half his life. During the summer, Combs said he trains every day for five to six hours a day. Putting in the work, he said he's improved since last year, especially mentally.
"I learned a lot of strategy," he said. "I built my strength with a lot of training too."
That experience is key for Combs to do well at No. 1. So far he's enjoying the challenge of playing the best competition around. He's also not letting the pressure get to him.
"I just get out and play my game," said Combs. "It goes how it goes."
The Blue Devils got off to a slow 1-3 start this season.
"We're struggling right now; we're young this year," said Smith, explaining he has five freshman on the team. His No. 4 and 5 players are in their first year of high school, while No. 6 is a sophomore.
Being so young, Smith knew it was going to be a challenge, especially at the beginning of the season, but he's noticing an improvement physically and mentally. He knows the team has a long way to go to compete in the I-Meck.
"It's going to take hard work and be disciplined," said Smith. "We have to understand the game better. Our younger guys are still learning the game and what works and doesn't work for them."
In addition to Combs, the team returns some talent, experience and leadership at the No. 2 and 3 spots: Seniors Michael Telford and Sean Ireland respectively.
Combs and Smith hope the team improves as the season progresses.
"I'll take this year if we finish strong over last year, which turned into a nightmare," said Smith.