CAMDEN— The tiny Orangeburg County town of Cordova seems an unlikely place to produce one of the state’s most successful tennis coaches.
Yet it was there, among the cotton fields in the 1950s, that the game grabbed hold of a young Roger Smoak.
It has become the game of his lifetime, and he has been glad to spread the word.
A coach since 1967 at Gaffney and Camden highs, Smoak passed the 500-win plateau in boys competition in April and led Camden to the Class 3A semifinals in May.
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At age 66 and having recovered from surgery to remove a noncancerous brain tumor last year, Smoak shows no signs of slowing.
“I love all sports,” Smoak said, “but tennis is one that you can enjoy for a lifetime.”
He has made it his passion since his mother gave him a couple of tennis racquets as a gift when he was in high school. There weren’t courts near his rural home, so he had to travel to Orangeburg to play.
As for instruction, well, it was up to him and him alone.
“I guess I hit a few balls,” Smoak said. “I didn’t have any instruction. But my first real connection with tennis came at Furman when I took a tennis class as part of my major, physical education. I picked it up from there.”
The kids he has taught at Gaffney and Camden, two towns not known for cranking out tennis prodigies, have been the recipients.
“He’s a guy that cares and has a lot of passion about the sport,” Camden athletics director Jimmy Neal said. “He cares about the kids, is a great role model and great teacher and an extremely consistent man. We’re very fortunate that he’s invested so much time to the youth of Camden High all these years.”
After earning his undergraduate degree from Furman, a master’s degree from Georgia and completing a two-year stint in the Army to fulfill his ROTC requirement, Smoak took a coaching job at Gaffney in 1967.
He started teaching tennis in physical-education classes, and a few of his students became interested in fielding a team for the school. They did so using two city courts with chain-link nets.
Four years later, Smoak moved closer to home when he took a job teaching PE and coaching at Camden. Once again, he found sparse tennis facilities but willing students.
Camden didn’t have courts at the high school, so the team practiced on community courts. There were only two per location, which meant the team often practiced at two places.
Smoak coached the boys and girls teams at Camden until 1995, when he decided to concentrate on the boys season in the spring. He has lost his records from his career coaching girls but estimates he amassed between 150-200 wins. Combine that with the 502 wins he has as a boys coach, and he easily has more wins than any high school tennis coach in S.C. history.
He has done it by not obsessing on winning and losing. His coaching style stresses discipline, not surprising given his Army background. But he does not demand too much of his players.
“We don’t set high goals that put pressure on them,” Smoak said. “As long as they played hard that day, I’m pleased. I’m really about helping kids become good citizens.”
Yet the success the Bulldogs have achieved at the state level does bring him joy.
In 1987, when his daughter, Pamela, played on the team, Camden placed second in the Class 3A tournament, falling to T.L. Hanna in the final.
Two years later, he led the boys team, featuring his son, Stephen, to the state final before losing to Hilton Head.
In 1991, with nearly a quarter century of coaching behind him, Smoak snagged his first championship when the Bulldogs edged Myrtle Beach 4-3 in the Class 3A final.
“Every coach wants to win a state championship,”Smoak said. “Just one. To see them achieve that goal was really, really special. But if we’d never won one, I’d still feel great about coaching tennis.”
His No. 1 player that year was Stephen, who now practices law in Camden and is on the Kershaw County Council. He won a singles and doubles match in the final.
That title, he said, validated the job his father does every season.
“He’s really able to get the most out of his players,” Stephen Smoak said. “In Camden, we’ve been in a unique situation where we haven’t had a strong tennis program at a country club or tennis club. The main way to get better is with the high school team. He’s a good teacher of the game.”
Roger Smoak retired from teaching in 1998 but has stayed on as the boys tennis coach. He also stays busy tending to his garden — “I’m still an old farmer at heart” — boating on Lake Wateree and staying active in the Lions Club and as a deacon at Camden’s First Baptist Church.
But he remains as passionate about tennis now as he was when he discovered the sport nearly 50 years ago.
“Good kids are what wins for you,” he said. “My job is to inspire kids to take tennis seriously, to become the best player and the best person (they) can be.”
Reach Wiseman at (803) 771-8472