Malcolm Kates remembers what it was like starting out with Beaufort High School's tennis program as a middle-school student.
He remembers well. And the experiences have helped him this year as he fills a leadership role for a young Eagles squad.
Kates recently wrapped up his second consecutive individual region crown and the Eagles claimed the Region 8-AAAA team title.
But more work remains. Kates and the Eagles start the Class 4-A playoffs next week, and the junior, who is closing in on the school's all-time wins record, will later play in the state singles tournament.
The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet talked to Kates this week about expectations, his game and his busy life juggling junior tennis with the high school season.
Question: You guys just wrapped up another region title and individually this is your second in a row. How do you feel about the way things have gone to this point?
Answer: It was really exciting this year with our team being so young. We didn't have any seniors in our starting lineup, so it was exciting to win region. And it looks like we'll have a good chance next year, as well. Last year, we tied for first place in the region. This year, the big goal was to win the region, and by winning the region it looks like we'll have a good setup for the playoffs. We'd really like to see how far we can go. Because Beaufort High has never really made it very far in the playoffs.
Q: And you're only a junior, but do you feel like the old guy on the team? What role have you taken on?
A: Even though I'm a junior, this is my fifth year on the team. It's really great to see seventh-graders, because that's where I started. It's cool to be able to tell them, 'I was once in seventh grade where y'all were. If you just keep going with the team, you can end up being at the top of the region, at the top of the team.'
Q: You think those guys have come along well?
A: Oh, yeah. Our team is going to be so much better next year, because we all have an entire year. And I know coach (Dave) Riedmayer and all of us are going to be practicing throughout the summer as well.
Q: What are the goals now with playoffs starting next week?
A: Our big goal, we'd really like to make it to the Lower State final, which would be one of the first times ever we've done that. I know I've never been able to do that with the team before. That'd be really exciting.
Q: You qualified for state singles a second straight year. What did you learn last year you can take with you this time?
A: Going into it last year as a sophomore was a really big deal, because I never thought I'd make it in that young. And so going in this year, I feel like I'm a lot more prepared for it and it's not so much the shock being with the top players in the state, but realizing that now that I'm older, I really have a chance to win something there. Last year, I only managed to win one round. And it takes three rounds to make the all-sate team. And so that's my goal this year.
Q: What's going to be your schedule during the summer?
A: There's a group of about six of us all from Beaufort. And we travel all across the state and sometimes out of state for tournaments. So it's a big difference going from a team aspect to individual. Because there, we're working on getting better ourselves and gaining our individual ranking.
Q: Do you also compete in tournaments during the season?
A: It's a little more difficult, but there's still a group of us who travel around. It's great, too, because you play different kids, so you're getting more experience. Doing both high school and tournaments, it's good because you're constantly playing tennis. And going to tournaments you're constantly working on things and getting used to playing more and more.
Q: Where does your game stand right now?
A: I can definitely see a difference from last year, and I know that this summer is when I really have to decide if I want to play college tennis or not. I'd really love to play college tennis, but my main focus would be getting into a great academic school. But I certainly feel like I have a chance to play. Right now, I'm in the top 30 in the state and inside the top 400 or 350 in the South. I recently aged up into the 18s. By the end of the summer, I'd like to be inside the top 15 in the state and inside the top 250 in the South.
Q: I read somewhere your coach is Gavin Cox. What have you been working on?
A: Yeah, he's out of Bluffton, opening a club in Rose Hill this summer. I've been working with Gavin for I believe three years now. I see Gavin every week. It's just going bit-by-bit and getting more and more weapons for your game that you can use in a match.
Q: What are your strengths?
A: I think one of my big strengths is mental toughness. I've been playing a long time, and for Beaufort High, we focus a lot on staying up the entire time and doing well in tense situations, like tiebreakers. I feel like my mental strength has really helped me.
Q: And if it's not going so well, what's usually the problem?
A: A lot of times, whenever I start falling apart, it's just that I lose confidence in my stroke. And I just have to realize I need to go for it the way I usually would in practice and not worry about who I'm playing and whether or not they're going to overplay me. I just need to realize I need to play how I know how.