AIKEN - State titles have become somewhat of a formality at South Aiken, which has won three straight.
But believe coach Mike Hicks when he says a fourth would be extraordinary.
"We've already surpassed any expectations anybody had of us," said Hicks, whose team beat Aiken 5-1 in the first round of the Class AAAA playoffs Thursday. The Thoroughbreds were led by Harry Cantey, who defeated Leonard Bush (6-1, 6-3) in No. 1 singles.
"Just to get there again would be unbelievable."
In many ways, the Thoroughbreds' march to a remarkable accomplishment is emblematic of Hicks' short but sweet career. The North Carolina native didn't have any prior tennis coaching experience when he took the job at South Aiken four years ago.
Hicks had served as the baseball coach for the previous 12 years, but he was starting a family and was intrigued by the prospect of maintaining a stellar tennis program.
"I was single for a long time and devoted a lot to baseball," said Hicks, who has two children, ages 6 and 4. "Baseball takes a lot out of you. ... We always had to start off the ground floor every year, and it was just so much work to try to keep it going."
The phrase "Good things come to those who wait" doesn't apply to Hicks, because he didn't have to wait long for good things to happen after taking over.
In 1998, a star-studded cast led the Thoroughbreds to an undefeated season and a state title. A year later, they lost only one match and took home another championship.
Last year, South Aiken went 19-0 and defeated Spring Valley for its third straight title, applying an exclamation point to a dominating 59-1 run during Hicks' three seasons.
"Unbelievable, isn't it?" he said.
Busy with a team that lost six players - including three seniors - from last year's squad, Hicks hasn't had time to think much about a fourth straight title.
Hicks said the attrition left him unsure of what to expect, even doubtful that his team could challenge for another title. But the first day of practice this season left him with quite a first impression.
"That first day, I said, `Well, I'm going to see how good of a coach I am now,"' he said. "But our skill level wasn't down as much as I anticipated. I was really excited after that first practice. I knew then that we had another shot, and here we are."
Today, the Thoroughbreds will travel to Spartanburg, S.C., where they'll face Dorman in the second round.
Hicks might say the odds are against his squad, but Aiken coach Mark Bolton isn't counting out the Thoroughbreds.
"The kids respect him," Bolton said. "He's a good coach that knows what he's talking about. When he talks, they're going to listen, and when you have that many personalities on a team, anything can happen.
"The good coach can make them jell into a team, and that's what he has done."
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645 or firstname.lastname@example.org.