April 7, 2014

Seasoning the birds: Roadrunners gain experience, taste success on tennis court

When Dalton State College first began the process of reviving its athletics program, officials didn’t have to look far to find the right people to lead its tennis program.

Both Michel Bates, the school’s director of tennis, and Zack Rogers, head coach of the men’s team, have deep tennis backgrounds and both have had success in the “Dalton” way.

“We are both from the Bill Chappell era of Dalton High athletics, and we expect to have success and work hard for that success,” Rogers said, referring to the former Catamounts football coach and athletic director. “One thing that helps is that we both have been involved with programs that have been successful. We had the eye for the kind of player we needed.”

They have a good eye.

Nearing the end of their first season, the Roadrunners have experienced plenty of success. The men are 12-4 after beating Martin Methodist (Pulaski, Tenn.) on Saturday at Lakeshore Park. The women lost to Georgia Gwinnett College, ranked first in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics poll, but they bounced back later in the day to beat Martin Methodist later in the day and improve to 9-5.

Neither team is eligible to play in the NAIA postseason, but the school will be a member of the Southern States Athletic Conference — which includes Martin Methodist — and the expectations are already high for next year.

“We are very excited about being in the Southern States Athletic Conference, but we aren’t going just to compete,” Bates said. “Our goals are to win conference and national titles. It is not a matter of if, it is a matter of when.”

Both Bates and Rogers have experience that belies the term “first-year” program. Bates was an All-Southeastern Conference honoree at Auburn and played professionally in the United States Tennis Association. Rogers played at Young Harris College, and before coming to Dalton State he was part of the powerful Tyler (Texas) Junior College program, which has combined to win 26 men’s and women’s national championships.

Both knew what to expect and the challenges that laid ahead.

“We were going to go for the best players we could find and see where it all panned out from there,” Bates said. “Zack and I flew down to Bradenton, Fla. in February of last year and we were trying to come up with a list of questions that could be asked by the recruits and the parents.

“Some of the things I thought were going to be a little more difficult have been a lot easier than I thought. One of the things was how do you sell Dalton, Ga., to a kid?”

It hasn’t been that hard, and the draw has been local, regional and international. In addition to players from Ringgold and Chatsworth, the roster for both teams also has players from the Bahamas, Brazil, Colombia, Germany, New Zealand and Russia. Bates said technology and Southern charm have both played big roles in drawing quality players to the start-up program.

“I told owner Kasey Carpenter the other day that the Oakwood Cafe has been one of my biggest recruiting tools,” Bates said. “They love the community and the Southern hospitality. I have been fortunate to lean on my experience. But I have also learned a lot more about using YouTube and Skype, and those have been tremendous recruiting tools.”

Nikolay Nikiforov is the No. 1 singles player for the men’s team and was one of the recruiting spoils from that trip to Bradenton by Rogers and Bates. A native of Moscow, Nikiforov said the appeal of joining the team was the newness of it all.

“I think that it is always good to try things new with new people and new coaches,” he said. “I have always wanted to play college tennis, and I like it. All of the people here in Dalton are so nice and we have so much support.”

Success has come quickly, and that has helped make the transition seem a lot smoother than it has actually been. A large part of the success for the team has come from the players being able to mesh together so well from the start. The Roadrunners’ Adam Hornby, who’s from New Zealand, said that meant setting aside egos and finding the right fit for each player.

“In general, for a first-year program trying to work out a lot of kinks, it has been a lot easier than what I thought it would be,” Hornby said. “I don’t think there is a true pecking order. The lineup is still very dynamic. Putting ego aside is huge. At the end of the day, every match is worth one point. They are all worth the same. If you win at (No. 6), it is a point. If you win at (No. 1), it is a point. It is all the same to the team.”

Women’s No. 1 singles player Laura-Sophie Winter said the teams were forced to adapt to their new teammates and new surroundings in a hurry.

“We can see the progress already because we had to get to know each other quickly,” Winter said. “We are already pretty close. It is the first year and there are some little things, but we have been able to figure it out and be successful.”

The success has made all things seem easier. And more success is expected.

“The first step is to win matches and gain confidence and make a bit of a name for ourselves,” Hornby said. “Next year, obviously, it is conference and national championships we expect to be competing for. We talk about that quite a lot. That is what we are really focused on.”

Rogers said the players have delivered on the expectations that coaches put upon them during the recruiting process.

“They have held up their end of the bargain,” Rogers said. “They have bought into the program and what we are trying to do. We have tested them this year, and they have competed well and are all motivated to get better. They know that they are the players who are setting the bar for everyone else to come.

“Dalton State is trying to grow and athletics is a big drive in that growth. Ten years from now, they will come back and the campus and the school will be totally different and they will have played a big part in that change.”

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