The Philip Simmons High School boys’ tennis team claimed its third consecutive state championship May 7 with a 6-0 victory over Christ Church.
With a hoard of titles in the school’s brief five-year history, the natural question to ask head coach Richard Schulz was, “Are you building a dynasty?”
The venerable coach’s reply was, “I’ve got a better word for it: We’re building a program at this school. Five years ago, I had one player for the first four weeks of the season. In February, we had 31 players come out for the team. We are drawing players from all over.”
While it’s way too early to talk about the 2023 season, when the Iron Horses will compete at the Class AAA level; the team will be prohibitive favorites to win a fourth straight state crown. All five of the top singles players are scheduled to be back: Josh Lively (sophomore),
Henry Hayden (junior), Zade Hyatt (junior), Jordan Mercado (eighth grade) and Matthew Esse (freshman). The doubles team that won at the state tournament is composed of senior classmates Soren Spina and Parker Black.
All seven players posted convincing victories against Christ Church at the Dr. Eddie Floyd Tennis Center in Florence. The Cavaliers were seeking a state record 26th state championship, but were no match for the Iron Horses.
The Iron Horses celebrated their first state championship in 2019. COVID-19 halted the 2020 season. But the Iron Horses didn’t miss a beat, bouncing back to win state championships last spring and again in 2022.
Schulz said coaching high school athletes is a combination of skill, art and energy.
“You have to be an artist because you start the season with a blank canvas,” Schulz said. “You have to be able to complete the big picture. It also takes skill, not a lot of it, to be a coach. It takes art and, for me, it takes 100 percent energy. If you give as much energy as the players, you’re going to have a good practice.”
The Iron Horses didn’t have a glitzy regular season, finishing with an 11-7 record against competition that included teams that reached the state finals in Class AAAAA and AAAA. The team also played New Jersey state power Bergen Catholic in April when Bergen Catholic ventured to South Carolina to play a handful of schools from the Palmetto State.
Schulz praised his co-captains for their tennis and academic success.
“Soren has a 5.08 GPA (on a weighted scale),” Schulz said. “And Zade is an exceptional student as well. He takes some challenging engineering courses.”
Schulz also coaches the Iron Horses girls’ team, which captured the state championship in the fall. The boys’ and girls’ teams are scheduled to receive their state championship rings at 11 a.m., May 13, at the school’s football stadium.
But first, there’s still unfinished business as the spring sports schedule winds down. Schulz and his top-three players Lively, Hayden and Hyatt headed back to Florence on May 9 for day one of the individual championships.