ELLISVILLE, MS (WDAM) – Veteran coach Mark Easley thought his Jones County Junior College men's tennis team had a chance to be pretty good in 2011.
The Bobcat netters, ranked No. 18 nationally in the latest Intercollegiate Tennis Association poll, have lived up to those expectations by qualifying for the NJCAA Division I National Tournament at Collin College in Plano, Texas. The event takes place May 16-20.
"I thought we were really going to have a good year and I really thought we had a chance at winning state," said Easley, who is in his 12th season as JCJC's head tennis coach. "We finished runnerup to Itawamba, a real solid team with experience. Their top four guys were back and that's huge in this league. "We competed well with them and finished runnerup in the state." It will be the first trip to the nationals in four years for the Bobcat men's tennis team. They earned the trip by finishing third in the Region 23 Tournament on April 19-20 behind Meridian Community College and Itawamba. Not only will the Bobcats be competing on the courts in Texas, one of their players will have an opportunity claim a prestigious national honor.
West Jones sophomore Cade Sherman was named the Region 3 winner of the Arthur Ashe Jr. Leadership and Sportsmanship Award. He is one of three finalists for the national award, which will be given on Sunday night at the tournament banquet. "I can't say enough about Cade," Easley said. "He had a real solid sophomore year. He has had two great years here and has shown such great leadership this year. His determination, work ethic and the way he practiced rubbed off on some of the other guys."
Sherman played No. 3 singles for the Bobcats. They used Sam Thorold of Leicestershire, England, at No. 1 singles and Nick Williams of Melbourne, Australia, at No. 2 singles. Laurel sophomore Armand Deniakos played No. 4 singles, Laurel High School freshman Josh Agee played No. 5 singles in the MACJC and Region 23 Tournaments and Laurel Christian School freshman Casper Wansley was at No. 6 singles. The roster is rounded out by Simpson Academy sophomore Mitchell Smith, Columbia sophomore Nathan Burkett, Laurel Christian School freshman Thomas Morgan and Northeast Jones freshman Colby Prince. Easley felt the Bobcats had the proper mix coming into the season.
"With Cade, Nathan, Armand and getting Mitchell back after a year's absence, we had four solid guys with experience to give us a good foundation," he said. "We had some good local freshmen coming in with Josh, Casper, Thomas and Colby. And then we had the two big additions with the international players, Sam and Nick. That just beefed our lineup up so much." It was the first year for JCJC to sign international players in tennis. Thorold and Williams were everything Easley could hope for in solidifying the Bobcat roster – both with the way they played on the court and how they fit in with the rest of the team off the court. "Sam and Nick gave us some real quality guys at the top of the lineup," he said. "When you go and play these other teams with international players at the top of their lineup, it sort of levels the playing field.
"We are really blessed with the type of kids we have, both tennis-wise and character-wise. With international players you never really know what you are getting until they land here and set foot on American soil. You have to see what type of people they are." Easley admits he did not know what to expect with the arrival of Thorold and Williams. "You don't make recruiting trips to England or Australia. You watch video on the internet and you talk with them over the phone," he said. "But Sam and Nick are just super guys who have fit right in since day one. They've both got a little crazy streak in them, like all of us do, and they like to have a good time. "But they love to compete, they fit right in with the rest of the team and if it were not for the accents, you would never know they were any different than the south Mississippi guys." Easley added that Thorold is one of the best players to suit up for the Bobcats. "Sam is as solid of a player as we've ever had here," he said. "When you are going out there and playing those sophomore international players, that's a challenge. And he stepped up to the challenge, competed well and gave us a chance to win a lot of matches. And it was the same thing with Sam and Cade at No. 1 doubles."
The Bobcats enjoyed success at the state tournament on the campus of Mississippi College in Clinton on April 14-16. Williams claimed the No. 2 singles title and Sherman won the No. 3 singles crown. Williams teamed with Deniakos to capture the No. 2 doubles championship. Deniakos and Wansley also advanced to the finals in their singles' divisions. Easley said the team prepared well for the state and regional tournaments and he thinks they are ready for nationals. "Sometimes practice can get monotonous, but that's not the case with these guys," he said. "They love to come to work, practice and compete and that's what makes my job fun because I know they are going to give great effort every time they step on the court. "We had a good year, but we were not satisfied with not winning the state. Itawamba has an experienced team and we were just right behind them.
We did well, but we still have some more business to take care of with the guys." Easley said the level of play would be intense when the team arrives in Texas. He said it would have a definite international flair. "When you look at the men and women's competition at nationals, it's just a different level of play," he said. "Even though we are a Division I school in tennis, we – like all Mississippi schools – still just give tuition only scholarships. We don't cover room or board or books and some of these other Division I schools do and they really use that to get a lot of international players. "A lot of the teams we will see at nationals will be nothing but international players, one through six." But Easley fully believes the Bobcats will more than hold their own against the competition from across the country. "We are going to see some really good tennis and it will be a challenge for our guys," he said. "We will approach it the same way we do with everything – we will compete, do the best we can, fight for every point and give ourselves a chance to win.
"As long as they give effort and play smart, that's all I'm concerned with. We will let the results take care of themselves. It's not unusual for some teams to go out there and not win a match because it is so tough. But I really think we will win some matches and I'll be disappointed if we do not. "But we want to represent our school and our team well and represent each other well. This is like a reward for them. They've had a good year. We will go out there and enjoy the trip. I think our guys will accept the challenge and have a good tournament."
Easley said the team will drive over on Saturday. There is a mandatory coaches' meeting on Sunday morning and the tournament banquet is Sunday night. The ITA Awards will also be announced at the banquet. The tournament begins Monday morning and with the consolation round, everyone is assured of at least two matches. The event is scheduled to conclude on Friday. "We are going to try and survive and last as many days as we can," Easley said. Easley said the Bobcats are happy to be back in the nationals. "We went back-to-back years in 2006 and '07," he said. "We had a good group back then, good teams. The 2006 team was really good, but I think this team could be the best we've had or it is certainly one of the best we've had. "We are looking forward to getting these guys out there and letting them experience this. That's been their goal all year. Getting to nationals is the measuring stick. To get there is a win already." Easley added that the team is fortunate to be able to make the trip. He credits JCJC President Dr. Jesse Smith, the school's Board of Trustees and administration for providing support to the program.
"We have to thank Dr. Smith for allowing us to go," he said. "Some schools that have qualified before did not go. But Dr. Smith has always said that if we earn a trip, he would do everything he could to make sure we get there and we are very appreciative of that." To keep up with how the Bobcats fare in the nationals, go to www.collin.edu/athletics/national_tourn/