Craig Smith knew his Hopewell tennis team had the experience and talent to be a contender for the I-Meck Conference title and beyond this year.
But what Smith didn't know was how his top six players would blend together as a team.
Three of his top six are veteran tennis players with seniors John David Curlis (No. 1) and Brian Andersen (No. 3) in their fourth year as starters and junior John Armato (No. 4) in his third season as a key player of the Titans.
But the other three starters for the Hopewell squad, seniors Tyler Roberts (No. 2), Danny Wintermeier (No. 5) and Chris Hourihan (No. 6), didn't play organized tennis until their junior years. Smith actively recruited Roberts, Wintermeier and Hourihan to the tennis team after watching their progress in other sports and in the classroom.
"This year's team has a very interesting dynamic," Smith said. "Everyone in our top six brings something different to the chemistry of our team. As a collective unit they are very tight-knit and they hold each other accountable for work they do on an off the court."
Success is nothing new to Smith and his Hopewell team as the Titans have won five conference championships since 2004, including three (in Smith's tenure.
"Coach Smith is a dedicated and tireless worker," said Hopewell athletic director Jamie Billings. "His dedication and efforts carry over to his players."
Smith said this team was a "two-year project," that included extensive weight lifting and conditioning year round for all of his players. Even though some of his guys aren't full-time tennis players, they've all dedicated themselves to the greater good of the team.
The results have yielded a balanced Titan squad, where everyone contributes with Curlis posting a 21-17 overall (singles/doubles) record, Roberts a 30-5 mark, Andersen is 26-10, Armato is 30-4, Wintermeier is 29-4 and Hourihan comes in at 29-4 on the season.
"We don't necessarily have any stars on this team," said Smith, who is also an active USTA player. "But the guys have bought into everything I've told them. They really work together as a team in what is usually a pretty individual sport."
The results of that dedication paid off as Hopewell not only won their second consecutive I-Meck title, but also made it further than they ever have in the state dual tournament, advancing to the state quarterfinals.
The Titans dispatched both Southwest Guilford and Greensboro Grimsley 5-1 in the first two rounds. They were schedule to take Ardrey Kell Tuesday.
Just looking at the west side of the 4A bracket, with Ardrey Kell, Hopewell, Myers Park and defending state champion R.J. Reynolds in the quarterfinals, gives Smith and his team a source of pride.
"You look at the teams left on our side of the bracket and it's an honor to be listed with those teams," Smith said. "They are all elite programs. That is what we want to be."
While Hopewell has been the "underdog," for a lot of the season, according to Smith, that might also be why they've played so well.
"We have been playing with nothing to lose for the last few weeks," he said. "I think that is the best way to play. We are loose and free and that has allowed us to play our best tennis at right time of the year."