PUEBLO -- Alexander Dawson boys tennis player Carson Smith has the tools to be great. He also has a natural defensive mindset.
But defense can only get you so far at the Class 4A state tournament. In the No. 3 singles match for third place, Smith turned a corner in his development as an elite player.
"I saw him more relaxed, more confident, bigger serves," Benninghoff said. "You're not gonna take the defensive nature out of Carson, but he took his chances when he had them, got the momentum early and buried his opponent pretty early in that first set. I don't think he ever looked back."
Smith defeated Kent Denver's Brendan Soane 6-2, 6-1. And he did it in atypical fashion for him.
Up until Saturday, Smith had started all his matches playing his usual safe, consistent, defensive game. After Friday's semifinal loss to eventual champion Spencer Lang from Niwot, Smith said, "I realized I needed to bring my game up to beat these better players."
In the final match of his junior season, Smith stepped it up a notch. He served the way his 6-foot-3 frame can allow him to, he fired powerful cross-court forehands and took chances when there were openings.
"I definitely played my A-Game and I was out of my mind today," Smith said. "When I got the chance, I'd go for a bigger shot."
At the highest level, Smith went big and it paid off. But he maintained his smart shot selection, allowing Soane, who frequently goes for big shots, to make mistakes.
But against an opponent like Lang, who doesn't make many mistakes, Smith learned he needs to be more aggressive at times.
"He well knows he has to. He's at that stage in his game development," Benninghoff said. "His defense has gotten him here. If he's gonna get to one or two, instead of third, he knows that he has to pick it up. He's gotta have the confidence to go bigger."
Smith's third-place finish paced the Mustangs to a tie for sixth in the team scoring with Discovery Canyon. Both teams scored 14 points.
Smith scored 10 of his team's points. His brother's Austen Smith and Ryan Smith scored two points at No. 1 doubles. Ian Day scored a point at No. 2 singles and No. 2 doubles Kyle Larson and Matt Stern scored another point.
Smith is a different player than when the season began. But with Day and No. 1 singles Ryan Howarth graduating, he'll have to continue to improve if he's to move up to fill one of their spots in the lineup.
"This was a very big win for me. I was hoping to get a little bit higher, but these guys here are really good," Smith said. "I'm hoping to come next year, too.
"Over the summer of next year and definitely through the winter I'm gonna get as much practice in as possible. I want to be hitting a little harder, get a little more power on my shots to prepare for next season's regionals and state."
Brad Cochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.