Tennis: Howard boys closing in on a perfect season

You can ask fifth-year Howard tennis coach Chip Boling who his strongest boys player is, just don't expect to get a straight response.

It's not that he's trying to be difficult, it's just that he's not quite sure of the answer.

"Depth-wise we easily have six guys that I can put in any spot. I can take a Cameron Proctor, I can play him at singles like I've done. I can take a Seth (Hoesman) and move him down to play doubles," Boling said. "Kyle Shope and Max Balter (the No. 1 doubles team), they can play singles for me. But we just kind of kept things the way they are. Things have jelled and thats how we've kept the team together."

For the most part, junior Andrew Pagan, at No. 1, and senior Hoesman, at No. 2, have held down the singles spots. But Boling said that even their positions in the ladder are not set in stone.

"Andrew and Seth, flip a coin any day at practice who wins, but on this team it's not about 'I' it's about 'us.' People are willing to make the sacrifices, to do what they have to do because this team wants to win a championship. That was the goal they set last year and that's the goal they're following, and I think that's commendable ... Seth says, 'I want to win a championship. If I've got to play two, I'll play two. If I've got to play doubles, I'll play doubles. If I need to play mixed, I'll play mixed.' "

And as the results show for Howard, parity among its players is a very good thing.

At 14-0 as of May 1, the Lions are now three wins away from the first perfect season in school history.

They won't be able to coast to the finish line though, as River Hill (10-1) looms ahead on Monday, May 7, the last day of the regular season.

Howard won a co-county title with Centennial in 1990, when the boys and girls teams were combined. The Lions split matches with Centennial that year.

The first time the Lions and River Hill squared off, on April 11, Howard won, 3-2.

"I expect a very competitive (re)match and I think all of the kids will play their hearts out and represent Howard County very well," Boling said. "We're seeing very good Howard County tennis right now."

To his point, Reservoir junior Biyik Akinshemoyin — the defending county champion and a state semifinalist — remains undefeated this season, and Atholton, Centennial, Marriotts Ridge and River Hill are all in a dogfight for the county title on the girls' side entering the final week of the season.

Last year, Howard's boys surprised the county with a 14-3 season a year after finishing with only six wins.

Shope said that after taking their lumps as freshmen and sophomores, he and Hoesman made a concerted effort to improve, playing over the summer and taking lessons with Howard assistant coach Jim Montgomery.

"Some of us got committed and started playing the sport year round," he said. "We started working over the summer and dedicating our time to tennis."

But this year, opposing coaches knew how powerful Howard was and were able to strategically stack their line-ups from the bottom up in an effort to derail the juggernaut.

Mt. Hebron was almost successful, but Shope and Balter won, 9-7, against two of the Vikings' strongest players to clinch the 3-2 win.

"The competition this year has made us all better because we're deeper, so everyone is working for their spot and playing harder," Shope said. "This year we just want to win a county title for the team."

And the Lions might not be fading back to the pack anytime soon, with Pagan, Balter, Proctor and his No. 2 doubles partner, Kevin Lopez, all returning next year.

"We're only getting better here," Boling said. "Everybody wants to have fun, they want to win, but it's all about support and what we can do for each other. That's what makes the sport good."

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