Lucas Dudley

Lucas Dudley, a 16-year-old sophomore at Carolina Forest High School, serves the ball during an exhibition last week.

Liam Conley focuses on the grind.

The 18-year-old is the captain of a green Carolina Forest High School boys tennis team striving to elevate their game.

“It’s definitely a younger team,” Conley said. “We’re definitely doing better this season than last season. I think there’s been solid improvement.”

The 5-4 Panthers, who were bested by Socastee on March 28, practice four days a week and are led by coach Mark Schminke.

“This is the fourth season for this team,” said Schminke, who also coaches the school’s varsity girls tennis squad.

“When I started, we only had seven guys,” he said. “Now we have 22 guys, so it’s a growing team for sure.”

The team is primarily made up of younger players who are complete beginners. Many of them don’t play any other sports, and Schminke noted this can affect their footwork.

“It’s not a super experienced team, but it’s not a bad team,” he said. “The team’s definitely gotten better over the years. The biggest change that we’ve had is the lower end of our ladder is getting much closer (in) skill level to the higher end of our ladder.

“So one through seven is pretty close in skill level as opposed to three years ago … [when] the difference was huge. The gap between them has gotten much smaller.”

Players praised Schminke for his efforts.

“He’s a great coach,” Conley said. “He seems to actually care about us and he takes it fairly seriously and helps out a lot.”

Conley added that, along with doubles play, the team concentrates on strategy.

“Mainly aiming your shots,” he said. “Actually try to win a point and not just try to last longer than the other person. It’s playing your game and not playing theirs.”

Said Schminke: “When we start our season out, we only pick a few things to work on the entire season. If a kid shows me that he can handle those few things in match play — in live play in a match that matters — then we might add a little bit more for him specifically during practice.

“For the most part, we really focus on doubles play, positioning on court and conditioning.”

The beginning of the season sees much of that conditioning.

“We start out the season with making sure there’s a captain on the team who makes sure everyone’s moving and working hard,” Schminke said. “I try to break them down physically so they can all be together and build themselves back up.”

The team has been able to bond during group dinners coupled with some humor and through group chat messages.

“I just want them to have fun and I want them to feel like they’re on some sort of team,” Schminke said.

“We have a lot of fun,” Conley said. “It’s definitely a fun atmosphere.”

While the team participated in the playoffs last season, Conley pointed out the top four squads in a conference make it.

Last year, the Panthers’ conference had just five teams and the squad was bounced out in the first round.

“We got crushed,” Conley said.

He hopes that more practice and repetition will produce better results overall.

“We’ve been playing pretty well,” he said. “There’s just better teams because we are so young. But give us a couple years, I think we’ll be really good.”

Sonny Chen agreed.

“Since we’re not the best team, we’re just trying to get out and train hard to get better,” said the 16-year-old junior. “Hopefully we go somewhere in the future.”

This year, due to Conway and South Florence high schools lacking boys varsity tennis teams, the team is guaranteed to have at least the fourth spot and make the playoffs.

Knowing a No. 3 or No. 4 rank in their conference would likely mean facing a tough No. 1 or No. 2 team next month when the playoffs begin, Schminke admitted his expectations aren’t lofty.

“I’m not setting the bar super high for them,” he said. “I think it’s going to be just too unattainable.”

Still, his players focus on improving their play.

“We’re just training for the future,” Chen said.

Now, the team eyes a Tuesday rematch with St. James High School, looking to avenge a 3-4 loss with hopes to clinch a No. 3 spot in their conference.

“I would like that match with St. James and then maybe the two weeks before playoffs to just accomplish a little bit more skills,” Schminke said. “I’m hoping that we take a win against them since our teams are pretty closely matched up. Whether they win or lose, you just want a good matchup, but I think we could possibly take a win from them, which is what I’m hoping for.”

The main thing the coach hopes the team will improve on is getting off the baseline.

“Hanging behind the baseline so we can get into longer rallies,” he said. “Not forcing ourselves to hit balls on the rise.”

He noted there are middle schoolers on the team.

“We still have people that are coming from middle school here so we’re training them early,” Chen said. “All the new people are able to learn high-level stuff so they’re able to get better quicker.”

Some students Schminke teaches during private lessons will join the squad in the next year or two.

“Next year we have three really talented sixth graders coming up also,” he said.

The coach is enthusiastic about the team’s future.

“I’m excited for it,” he said.

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