A preseason tournament in Florence did nothing to shake the confidence of Aaron Newland.
The Bluffton High School sophomore was stepping into No. 1 singles this year for tennis coach Bob Brown, and the results were tough at first. The former No. 4 standout struggled to finish early on, going 1-4 against some of the state's elite talent.
"I knew everyone there was a top, national big kid," he said. "I like playing them because it makes me better for these matches. It makes you a lot better player."
His work now, however, is finally starting to show. While his anticipated match Tuesday afternoon with arguably the state's best player was put on hold, Newland still battled back to claim a 6-4, 0-6, 11-9 win in a tiebreak over Hilton Head Christian Academy's Ben Likins.
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The come-from-behind win helped catapult the Bobcats to an impressive 6-0 victory over the talented Eagles in Bluffton's home opener.
"Surprising," Bobcats coach Bob Brown said. "I didn't think that we would do this well. They're a heck of a team. We played tough. They're a real good team. They're going to come after us big time next time."
Newland came to the court expecting to face off with the state's top-ranked junior in Hampton Drake, who is ranked No. 6 overall in the Southeast by TennisRecruiting.net. But the Eagles' star and his brother, No. 2 singles player Charlie Drake, were instead in a training session at Smith Stearns Tennis Academy.
The Eagles' Nos. 3 and 4 players -- Ben Likins and his brother, Alex -- then moved into the top two spots. Ben appeared to have the better of his Bluffton counterpart late, holding an 8-4 lead in the tiebreaker, before Newland began to hit with more patience and force Likins to move around more.
"It was working," Newland said. "He kind of got discouraged and it helped me get the win. It was a close one, though. It could have gone either way."
The change in strategy helped net the Bobcats' new No. 1 an 11-9 victory in the tiebreaker, signaling the start of what was a dominant day on the court.
"That's who he is," Brown said. "He always does that. He doesn't know how good he is, which is kind of good for a coach. When we were in Florence at the tournament, he was going to tiebreakers with state champions and stuff."
Richard Snyder followed with another win in a tiebreaker at No. 2 singles, defeating Alex Likins 4-6, 6-1, 10-5. Davis Rosenblum, Matthew Bornstein and Morgan Philoxene all added wins in straight sets at Nos. 3-5 while Diego Garcia and Matthew Ball capped off the sweep with a 6-1, 6-1 triumph at No. 2 doubles.
Philoxene was inserted into the lineup in place of Dakota Story, who was out due to sickness. The underclassman rallied from a 4-1 deficit in the first set to claim the victory.
"We had some great things happen," Brown said.
The convincing victory did nothing to quell the expectations for this year's Bluffton team, which Brown called the best in his nine years with the program earlier this week. The Bobcats (2-0) begin their Region 8-AAAA slate Thursday afternoon at Ashley Ridge.
"I think we're going to win region," Newland said. "Who knows how far we'll go? Maybe win states. Even a region championship would be good for our first year in 4-A. We're winning all of our matches, so we're doing good."
Eagles coach Eric Wammock was equally encouraged despite the results. Hilton Head Christian (2-1) had not lost a set in either of its first two matches, and Wammock wanted to see his younger players pushed before next Tuesday's showdown with Porter-Gaud, which knocked off the Eagles in last season's SCISAA finals.
"It was a good day to be pushed," he said. " ... I was really excited the kids got to feel a little pressure that they haven't had to feel yet. We've really rolled through our first couple of matches. We've got a tough one next week.
"While I'm disappointed in the loss for the guys, I'm not disappointed that we had an excellent fight on our hands."
Bluffton 6, Hilton Head Christian 0
Singles: No. 1: Aaron Newland (BLF) def. Ben Likins 6-4, 0-6, 11-9; No. 2: Richard Snyder (BLF) def. Alex Likins 4-6, 6-1, 10-5; No. 3: Davis Rosenblum (BLF) def. Cameron Clark 6-2, 6-4; No. 4: Matthew Bornstein (BLF) def. Walker Wood 6-4, 6-1; No. 5: Morgan Philoxene (BLF) def. Tyler Hall 7-5, 6-1
Doubles: No. 2: Diego Garcia/Matthew Ball (BLF) def. Tate Lucci/Charles Michael 6-1, 6-1