Much has changed in the world and in the Philip Simmons High School boys’ tennis program since the Iron Horses captured the Class AA state championship in May 2019.
The COVID-19 pandemic pretty much shut down the spring sports schedule around the state last year, while seven of the players from the memorable 2019 season are no longer with the program.
Coy Simon, who was ranked No. 1 in the South in 18-U at the time, now plays for the Tennessee Volunteers.
Max Smith decided to forgo his senior season with the Iron Horses and is focusing on tennis at the next level. He will play for the Clemson Tigers and is part of the No. 2 recruiting class in the country when he matriculates next fall.
It’s the same situation for Mitchell Deames, who is not playing this spring to focus on his college career.
The Nos. 4-7 players transferred to other programs.
Still, veteran coach Richard Schulz is excited about the season.
“Our challenge is to get ready for the playoffs and the state championship,” Schulz said. “We will be there, and I know who we will play. We will play St. Joseph’s.”
That was the opponent when the Iron Horses won their first state title in boys’ tennis two years ago. There are 13 players on this year’s squad, and the biggest challenge is to develop the Nos. 4-13 players.
“That’s critical,” the coach said. “I think the state championship will come down to who wins the doubles matches.”
There is still talent at PSHS. The team is 4-3, and is improving every week. The Iron Horses battled injuries in a 6-1 loss to perennial SCIA power Porter-Gaud. But the Iron Horses topped the Cyclones 6-3 in the second meeting of the season. The COVID-19 pandemic still affects the team’s schedule this season. Schulz said the Iron Horses will not play Wando, Academic Magnet and Summerville because of the pandemic.
“The problem is we haven’t played enough matches,” Schulz said. “The challenge will be to be ready.”
The top 2 players are products for the highly successful Live to Play program: Brandon Mercado and Zade Hyatt.
“Brandon has been exceptional,” Schulz said. “He’s cut from the same cloth as Coy and Max. Zade has been with the program since the seventh grade and is getting better every day.”
The No. 3 singles player is Jordan Mercado, the younger brother of the No. 1 seed.
“He may be the best 12-year-old that I have been around,” Schulz said. “He tracks down every ball and never quits. He’s undefeated.”
Keith Lemke and Mike Motilla are sophomores who have been on the team since the seventh grade and are the Nos. 4 and 5 singles players, respectively.
The rest of the team include Soren Spina, Parker Black, Matthew Esse, Parker Owens, Ben Shannon, Mills Cannon, Colin Pheney and Nathan Poillion.
“This is the best group I had,” Schulz said. “Most of them aren’t tournament players. They are good high school players. They play as a team.”