Josh Smerker got the Woodstock boys tennis program heading back in the right direction this season.
The Wolverines made the state playoffs in each of the previous four seasons, but after a first-round exit in 2018, the Wolverines made some noise this year, sweeping Colquitt County in the first round before losing 3-2 to eventual state semifinalist Wheeler.
“I knew we lost a couple good seniors,” Smerker said. “I definitely thought we could compete in the region and make the playoffs. It’s something we’ve done a lot lately and I think, as an expectation for the kids, it should never go away. That’s what we set as our standard.”
A return to playoff success may have actually begun in the regular season and region tournament.
Woodstock finally flipped the script on archrival Etowah, going a perfect 3-0 against the Eagles, including a win to earn the No. 3 seed from Region 4AAAAAAA.
“Any time you play someone that close, one win is a fantastic thing,” said Smerker, the 2019 Cherokee Tribune Boys Tennis Coach of the Year. “Just one victory out of the three makes us happy. Any time you can beat a rival, it’s a great thing, especially to put us in a position to make us more successful in the playoffs, it’s twice as sweet.”
In the state playoffs, Smerker had plenty of experience to call on.
In addition to his postseason experiences at Woodstock, he won a state championship at Pope in 2011 and said trying to prepare his team for its biggest matches was one of the biggest challenges of the season.
“A lot of those kids play their own tournaments, but there’s nothing like playing with your school’s name on your uniform,” Smerker said. “They don’t do that very often, so we try to make it mean something to them. Playing for their teammates and Woodstock matters. We want them to be a little nervous in the playoffs, but, if we can stay calm, we know we have a chance to play against some of these kids.”
While Smerker tried to emphasize the team aspect of playing for a high school, he also tried to allow his players some freedom. He said players are allowed to miss team practices to work with their personal coaches, and it usually works out to Woodstock's benefit.
“Our kids are fantastic,” Smerker said. “We have a few with private coaches. We have no problem with that. What I try to instill is competing and being part of a team, because they don’t get that a lot. I really focus on fostering a team atmosphere. I try to be open to it. When they have a chance to get really good coaching from their private coaches, I think that can help us more than anything I can show them.”
Still, Smerker has his impact on the team. He said he is never afraid to move players around in the lineup and, as long as they buy in to the changes, it can be a refreshing change of pace during the season.
“I move them around a lot early,” Smerker said. “We have a group text to keep everyone involved with what’s going on. It took us to the end of the year to know what we wanted to do consistently. We’ll move people around and find the matchup that gives us the best chance to win. The kids did a great job just doing what the team needed them to do.”
Woodstock, however, will have to go after its sixth straight playoff appearance without Smerker. He is taking a job at Campbell to serve as an assistant football coach under former Etowah defensive coordinator Howie DeCristofaro.
Smerker, though, believes thinks the Woodstock tennis program will continue on as a perennial playoff participant.
“They’re going to lose a couple seniors, but the expectation should not change,” Smerker said. “They should be a playoff team still. That’s what they should be fighting for, and I don’t see that changing.”