PRINCETON — Last spring, after a considerable hiatus, the Princeton Senior High School tennis program finally had a player representing the school in the state tournament.
This spring, there will be three Tigers netters making the trip.
Boys players Henry “Ace” Lipscomb and Nick Whittington and girls player Kate Smith have all earned appearances in this year’s Class WVSCAA Class AAA state tournament, which began Thursday, and will continue through Friday and Saturday at Kanawha City Community Center in Charleston.
Last year, Princeton’s Camryn Cox qualified for the girls draw. This year, the boys and girls head coaching duties were assumed by Jacinda Santon-Smith, who led the boys to 12-1 team finish and the girls to a 9-3 overall team finish in regular season play.
It’s possible that even more Tigers players might’ve found a way to slip into the state draw had not the scheduling conflict of an extremely popular school trip whittled down Santon-Smith’s available roster for the regionals, which were played April 29-30, also in Charleston.
“I had a lot of kids not here because many of my kids were on a band trip to [Disney World in Orlando], so I didn’t have half of them,” said Santon-Smith, a Princeton alumna who played No. 1 singles for the Tigers as a teenager.
“We played doubles on Monday and didn’t have anybody qualify for state in doubles but on Tuesday we had eight play in the singles tournament and three of them qualified for state,” she said.
Lipscomb, a 6-5 senior, was a member of Princeton’s highly successful boys basketball team this past winter. His ample wingspan gives him lots of leverage and reach that he can put to good use on a tennis court. He finished fourth in the No. 1 singles draw at the region to earn his shot at the state.
“He’s our captain and really the heart of our team, I would say,” said Santon-Smith, who noted that her ‘Ace’ has waited four years for the opportunity to play at state.
Lipscomb, who was named valedictorian of Princeton’s graduating class of 2019, considers himself a tennis player who also happens to play some basketball — not the other way around. Bluefield State, one of the most highly-ranked NCAA Division II tennis programs in the region, was interested in recruiting him to play for the Big Blues. He intends to attend West Virginia University, however, where he plans to study Petroleum Engineering.
“I don’t think that I’ll play at Morgantown,” said Lipscomb, who has dreamed of playing at state since he started swinging a racquet for the Tigers as a freshman.
“It’s definitely validating. It shows that hard work definitely pays off. And I couldn’t pick a better group of teammates to be with going into state. It feels like I’ve made the people who helped me get better proud and happy,” said the boys singles ace, who obviously has a lot of emotional investment in what will likely prove his final foray into interscholastic tennis competition.
“I can’t say that I feel any more pressure than I do in a normal match. I try to go into every match with the same kind of mindset. I’m always going to try to play the hardest I can and hopefully come out with a win. In the back of my mind, I know the [state] field will be awesome. It would be awesome if I could make it far at state but at the end of the day, all I can do is the best I can do,” he said.
Whittington, a junior, collected a second-place finish in the No. 3 singles draw at the regional to punch his ticket to the state. He’s been one of Santon-Smith’s star pupils on the court.
“Nick is like my pride and joy. He listens to me and has progressed quite a bit. He’s the most improved on the whole team, by far. He has gone from being an O.K. player to a great player. He had an undefeated season and he came in second at regionals,” the head coach said.
Hopefully, this won’t necessarily be Whittington’s only shot at playing at the state tournament. But it’s still an opportunity to compete at a high level for which he’s waited quite a long time. He finished second
“I’m really excited to be able to go, because I wasn’t able to play ranked my first few years playing tennis. I’m very excited that I’ve made it to the state in my first year of playing ranked and I hope I can go farther next year, too,” said Whittington, who is grateful for the coaching he’s received from Santon-Smith this season.
“She has definitely helped me improve. She never gives up on me and I’ve been improving every day through her lessons as she teaches us the skills that she has from her past. She’s a great coach for us,” said Whittington, who said that Santon-Smith’s history as a successful youth tennis player makes her teaching moments especially relatable.
Kate Smith, the youngest qualifier, finds Santon-Smith not only relatable but literally related: she is the daughter of the head coach.
“Kate is probably one of my most reliable players. She always plays well. She’s always consistent. She’s always level-headed. She is always ready for a challenge. I’m proud of her going ... especially as a freshman,” said Santon-Smith of her progeny.
Kate admits that a trip to the state is basically gravy at this stage of her high school career. But she’s going to treat it like meat and potatoes.
“I’m just really excited to be going as a freshman. I didn’t expect this at all. Hopefully, I can improve throughout the summer and do even better next year. To just keep improve — that’s what I hope for,” said the younger Smith, who finished third at No. 2 singles to earn her place in the state bracket.
“When I go [to state] I’m going to try to win. I always do the best I can and always try to win. So we’ll just see what happens,” she said.
She said she doesn’t feel that having a mom for a coach creates any additional pressure. Having a mother who was a nationally-ranked USTA player — that does kind of kick things up a notch for her.
“For the most part, she treats me like all the other the other players. She doesn’t treat me any differently. But I do feel pressure because when she played, she was really good ... like nationally really good. Hopefully one day, I’ll be as good as her. That’s what I’m hoping for,” Kate said.
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