The preseason team morale is still high, but the Greyhounds underwent more changes than anticipated.
Pope already knew it would lose No. 2 singles player Preston Samowitz, as well as the No. 1 doubles tandem of Jonathan LeBoutillier and Michael Siegel, all of whom were key contributors to the Greyhounds' 21-1 record last year.
Pope also lost coach Josh Smerker, who left to become the offensive coordinator for the Milton football team under Howie DeCristofaro, a former assistant on the Pope football staff.
Then came the unexpected offseason changes.
Hayes Brewer, the Greyhounds' No. 1 singles player and the Marietta Daily Journal/Cobb County Player of the Year, decided to take the home-schooled route. On top of that, doubles starter Cole Connor and reserves Matt Widen and Aaron Tipton chose to focus on tournament tennis, according to new coach Dean Kroeger.
There's a chance Brewer may rejoin the team as a senior next season, but having to defend a state title without his services may be more challenging for Pope. One of the grittiest players in the state a year ago, Brewer seldom allowed nasty deficits to overcome him during the match. His comeback from a 6-1 first-set loss against McIntosh to win 1-6, 6-2, 6-2 was remarkable.
In looking ahead to 2012, the Greyhounds are eager to tackle the same goal, but with a different identity. They only have three returning players, but they also have the luxury of eight potentially talented newcomers.
"The makeup of the team is different this year," said Kroeger, who took the reins of the boys team after serving as the girls coach before. "We lost a lot of players from the state championship team, and we just need to see how the new young players respond. Our youth is a bit of a concern, as we really have only three veterans of last year's team returning. But I expect they will rise to the challenge, and we will be very competitive this year."
Junior Kyle Hartfield and sophomore Austin Bates are the familiar faces returning, and both are competing for the top two singles positions. Senior Max Yarus, Pope's only other returning player, may contribute at both singles and doubles.
Bates, a top-20 player in the state, has attracted attention from Georgia and Oklahoma, according to the Tennis Recruiting Network website. He is expected to be a force at singles after playing No. 2 doubles last year. Pope is also expecting big things from Hartfield, who is ranked in the top 35 in the state and the top 150 in the Southeast.
Sophomore Alex Alea will throw his hat into the ring for the No. 3 singles position after playing No. 1 singles for the JV team last year. Sophomores Dominic Allan and Michael Busby are experienced players as well.
The remaining five newcomers have doubles expertise with four spots open. Jerry Nonaka and Robert Dickinson are both juniors, and Mark Fisher, Scott Garvey and Ryan Heins are sophomores.
"We'll have to see what happens here," Kroeger said. "Some are really good, and if the others come along, we're going to have a good team. I'm looking forward to the season."