LAFAYETTE -- Since Carson Smith arrived at Alexander Dawson School three years ago, he has always felt like one of the younger players on the tennis court.
As a tall and talented freshman, Smith faced driving competition from the Mustangs' top players. Mustang leaders such as Michael Walker, Ian Day and Ryan Howarth all had a hand in molding the young Smith over the past three years.
Out of that mold came a state-level player to be reckoned with. But more than that, Smith has finally emerged from his constant mentoring as the personification of his trial. He's become a true mentor.
"Everybody's graduated and I'm thinking what's really important for me, and the other seniors, is that I'm leaving my team with our legacy," Smith said. "I want to get them going and get them to have their own squad when we leave."
Smith doesn't spout team rhetoric to mask a mediocre skill set or to please his coach Kathy Benninghoff. Playing No. 3 singles last season he finished third at the 4A state tournament to help guide the Mustangs to a sixth-place team finish.
The senior captain simply gets more out of working within the team environment than working on his own game. Benninghoff and the players playfully call him "Coach" at practice.
As manager and hitting partner for the girls team, basically an acting coach, Smith gets to use his eye for technique and imparting knowledge. His easy-going, yet competitive, personality causes people to listen.
Add in the fact that he's played with brothers Austen and Ryan for three years and it's no wonder Smith is more concerned with Dawson tennis as a whole rather than his own game.
"Your team can drive you in a way you can't on your own," he said. "I really believe that tennis is not an individual sport, even though you're working for your own match and your own sets. It's a team-based sport. No matter what happens, my rung on the ladder will always count the same as every other rung."
It's Smith's final season and he's as concerned as any senior about how he'll perform. An offseason wrist injury that hindered his forehand and summer illness that threw off his tournament schedule were discouraging hindrances to his preparation. But they left him excited for the season.
The 6-foot-3 senior is also looking forward to playing more aggressively, something he learned at the 2011 state tournament.
"I saw parts of my game that did not work so well in the state tournament because of the difference in competition and the players there," Smith said. "When I was playing more consistently, I should have gone for different shots."
With his length and court coverage, Smith naturally adapted a defensive style. But the state tournament taught him he needs to be more aggressive and go for winners when opportunities arise. Still, he's not going to take his aggression too far and will still use his conservative style as long as it's effective.
Benninghoff said Smith's confidence jumped up last season, which led to his run to, then through, the state tournament.
"He played hard and he got results," Benninghoff said. "He pushed around our two and our one and that gave him confidence last year."
With his offseason setbacks and a likely move up the ladder, Smith's season on the tennis court is an unscripted movie. But Benninghoff said his principle value is as clear as ever.
"Carson the player is one thing. Carson the leader is another in itself," Benninghoff. "He is just a leader of men. In that respect, he's invaluable to us."
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