It's been nine years since Bob Brown first took the reins of the Bluffton High School tennis program, his hand prints yet to be stamped on the young, upcoming program.
Players have come and gone, region championships won and lost. There's been some good times, of course, and some not so good, as well. A Lower State finals appearance in 2011 headlines the list of accomplishments. So, too, do consecutive Region 7-AAA crowns during the Bobcats' last two seasons at the Class 3-A level.
None of those memories, however, may come close to what Brown has in store this time around.
"I think this is the best team I've ever had," he said.
That's some high praise considering the level Bluffton has played at the past several years. The Bobcats must replace No. 1 singles standout Chris Davis from last season's roster, as well as No. 5 singles veteran Nate Calhoun.
Bluffton will lean on only one senior during its inaugural year in Class 4-A, as captain Diego Garcia leads the way in doubles.
"I've got all 10th- and 11th-graders," Brown said, "and they've really been putting in a lot of hard work."
Aaron Newland is one of the underclassmen Bluffton will rely heavily on this season, as the sophomore takes his sterling record at No. 3 singles and moves into Davis' top spot. Juniors Richard Snyder and Davis Rosenblum will follow behind him at Nos. 2 and 3 with Dakota Story and Matthew Bornstein sliding into the Nos. 4 and 5 spots, respectively.
"So much of these teams is about balance," Brown said. "We're pretty balanced from Nos. 1 to 5. All these teams have good Nos. 1 and 2, usually. I have a very balanced team of seasoned guys."
Those seasoned players will step into what Brown believes is a very winnable Region 8-AAAA schedule. The Bobcats (1-0) generally judge themselves next to rival Beaufort High, a perennial contender in region play, and Brown thinks the Bobcats may have the edge this season. Summerville and Ashley Ridge, which Bluffton travels to on Thursday, may compete alongside the Bobcats for this year's title.
"I think we're going to be fine, just from the scouting," he said. "I think we're going to make an immediate impact."
"I gauge by Beaufort," he added. "They always seem to be in the thick of things. I think we're slightly better than them."
Brown should know more about this year's team later today, when the Bobcats host a stout Hilton Head Christian Academy squad in the home opener at 4 p.m. The Eagles, who were runners-up at the SCISAA Class 3-A level a year ago, are led by junior Hampton Drake, who is ranked sixth in the Southeast and 27th nationally according to TennisRecruiting.net.
"They're very, very strong," Brown said. "We don't have to beat them; we just have to play well against them. It's a great, friendly rivalry. We'd love to beat them at our home opener."
2013 HIGH SCHOOL BOYS TENNIS PREVIEW
Coach: Joel Keown, 1st year
Top returning players: Sr. Grayson Morgan
Strengths: Almost all of the Dolphins' top seven players from a season ago return to this year's team.
Weaknesses: Despite the bevy of returning starters, Keown still believes his team to be fairly young and inexperienced.
Coach's prognosis: "(We're) planning on a winning season with a group of hardworking athletes," Keown said.
Coach: Larry Scheper, 3rd year (16-10 at Beaufort Academy)
2012 results: 8-6 overall, lost in 2nd round SCISAA playoffs
Notable personnel losses: Wes Mahoney
Top returning players: Quinten Paton-Melland, William Lindsay, Will Dukes, Cain Richards, Daniel Richards, William Lindsay
Key newcomers: Dan Oelschlager, Peter Trask
Coach's prognosis "Will accept nothing less than a state championship," Scheper said.
Coach: David Riedmayer, 6th year (122-43 with Beaufort High boys, 251-68 overall)
2012 results: 18-6 overall, lost to Lower State semifinals to Aiken
Assistant coaches: Larry Angus, Paul Louw
Notable personnel losses: Malcolm Kates, Anthony Williams, Fred Tkach, Hunter Pylant, James Bachety
Top returning players: Fr. Alex Angus
Key newcomers: Rohan Deasai, Jack Louw, Conner Anderson, Brogan Ferry, Danile Lange
Strengths: The Eagles have a desire to win, Riedmayer said, thanks in part to the Beaufort High assistant coaching staff
Weaknesses: Lack of match experience
Coach's prognosis: "(Our goal is to) gain match experience (and) improve throughout the year," Riedmayer said.
Coach: Robert Brown (74-56 at Bluffton)
2012 results: 15-4 overall, lost in second round to Socastee
Assistant coaches: Di Seggie, Leon Aragon
Notable personnel losses: Chris Davis, Nate Calhoun
Top returning players: Davis Rosenblum, Richard Snyder, Aaron Newland
Strengths: Experience, depth
Coach's prognosis: "This is best team in Bluffton High history," Brown said. "If all return and are healthy, we should contend deep into playoffs. This is first visit to 4-A where I believe we are in the top three."
Hilton Head Christian
Coach: Eric Wammock, 7th year
2012 results: 7-4 overall, SCISAA 3-A runner-up
Notable personnel losses: Nick Bybel, Sam Trimble, John Ziegler
Top returning players: Hampton Drake, Charlie Drake, Ben Likins, Alex Likins, Cameron Clark, Tyler Hall
Key newcomers: Walker Wood
Strengths: "Even with the loss of two starters, our depth may be unaffected by the improved play of Cameron Clark and the addition of Walker Wood," Wammock said. "Hampton and Charlie Drake are two highly-ranked juniors, and returner Ben Likins was undefeated last year."
Weaknesses: Depth beyond the No. 8 position
Coach's prognosis: "Our region is by far the best in the state, having claimed the championship and runner-up spots for the past several years," Wammock said. "Last year, all four teams from our region qualified for state, and I believe, rounded out the semifinal. If HHCA stays healthy, we should have an excellent shot at earning a title."
Hilton Head Island
Coach: Jennifer Weitekamper, 1st year
Strengths: The Seahawks have a nice blend of youth and newcomers with lots of talent, Weitekamper believes.
Weaknesses: "Cohesively becoming a team and understanding each player is worth one point for the win regardless of what position they play," Weitekamper said.
Burning question: "Can they make it to states this year?" Weitekamper said.