SHS Leaning On Its Big Guy

Posted: May 9, 2014

Spotswood’s Joe Dillenbeck prepares to return a serve by Emmett Johnson at practice Thursday. (Photo by Jason Lenhart / DN-R)

PENN LAIRD – At 6-foot-5 and 195 pounds, Joe Dillenbeck looks more like a football player than a tennis star at Spotswood High School. There’s a reason for that.

“I’ve got some pretty good genes,” Dillenbeck said.

His father, Andy, was a full-scholarship tight end at Appalachian State before a pinched nerve in his neck derailed his career.

In Dillenbeck’s case, it was an injury that catapulted him into Spotswood’s No. 1 singles spot last season, helping prepare him for his senior campaign – a flawless one to this point.  

Leading the undefeated Trailblazers (15-0), Dillenbeck is 14-0 in singles and doubles to prove he belongs in the No. 1 spot, a role he inherited this season after just three matches when Josh Rodgers left the team. SHS athletic director Tim Leach said Rodgers violated a school policy.

“Joe had to play No. 1 for half the season last year, so I think he was a little bit more comfortable with that,” said SHS fifth-year coach Jim Roth, referring to a four-wheeler accident that sidelined Rodgers and opened the door for Dillenbeck. “He wasn’t nervous about it. He knew he could handle it.”

It’s hard to believe Dillenbeck picked up a tennis racket only three years ago, barely making the 12-man roster as a freshman.

That’s when senior teammate Alex Preston – Spotswood’s No. 4 player – did what several SHS coaches couldn’t do: recruit Dillenbeck.

“I just decided to stick with tennis and work on it year-round,” said Dillenbeck, who has received interest from Division II Pfeiffer University (N.C.) and is sending out videos to get on other college radars. “I think it’s a combination of, this is like a sport I really enjoy and I felt like it’s a challenging sport and I could always get better at it.”

Fresh off their first state tournament appearance, the Trailblazers were challenged early in the season when Rodgers – the 2013 Valley District tournament champion – left the team. But Roth said the Blazers refused to let that define a promising season that began with five seniors in the top five.

As a team, Spotswood has dropped just four individual games, going 122-4.

“That just speaks to how good our whole team is, not just the top two,” said SHS senior Emmett Johnson, the team’s No. 2 player and Dillenbeck’s doubles partner.

A win today at 4:30 p.m. against visiting Broadway would allow Spotswood to lock up the No. 1 seed in the inaugural Conference 29 tournament, which begins Monday.

“I think they know they have a special team for around here and they’re trying to make the best of it,” Roth said.

Both the SHS boys’ and girls’ tennis teams are undefeated, seeking their second consecutive perfect seasons. Spotswood’s girls lost a coin flip with Western Albemarle to determine the No. 1 seed in the girls’ tournament. Leach said that if Spotswood’s boys lose Friday, the two schools would have to flip another coin for top seeding.

Should the Blazers beat Broadway, Roth said their first-round opponent might be Stuarts Draft, though official pairings have yet to be determined.

Dillenbeck survived a 7-5 win against Waynesboro’s Grayson Burns during Wednesday’s second match of a doubleheader after beating Burns 6-0 earlier that day. He said it was a wake-up call.

“It shows me how much I have to work and how much guys are going to push me,” said Dillenbeck. “I’m going to have to come through those close matches and stay mentally strong.”

Dillenbeck and Spotswood’s top competition in the conference playoffs will be Western Albemarle, which is led by junior Tucker Ottaway. Not surprisingly, Dillenbeck believes his biggest attribute would be vital if he were to face Ottaway, who he’s seen play four or five times at USTA tournaments in the summer and fall.

“He’s really consistent, but I think that I’d have to use my big serve and groundstrokes to work the court and get into the net and finish at the net,” said Dillenbeck, a pupil of Spotswood Country Club tennis pro Rick Etchells. “Really just overpower [him] and stay consistent.

“I think that my height helps me generate a lot of pace off the serve and groundstrokes, and I just try to work the court and play short points and finish at the net.”

Dillenbeck, Johnson, Preston and No. 3 Joshua Sheets are all four-year varsity players for SHS. Three years ago, Johnson and Sheets were easing Dillenbeck and Preston into a brand-new sport. Now, Johnson said he’s simply trying to keep up with his former student of the game.

“He doesn’t run through the motions,” Preston said. “His technique and his form, it’s basically like, it looks like the pros.”

Before tennis, Dillenbeck competed on the mountain for roughly six years as a skier on Massanutten’s alpine racing team.

A broken wrist caused him to quit and focus on tennis. Probably a wise career move for the physically intimidating Dillenbeck, who is doing his part to generate buzz around the Spotswood tennis courts in more ways than one.

“He recently got a new puppy,” Sheets said of Dillenbeck’s golden Labrador retriever. “… When he holds that puppy he’s in a different world than he is on the tennis court when he’s smashing the ball over the fence. His mom and dad have brought it, and that usually brings the soccer girls down and then they finally see our matches. It’s not the most popular sport, but his puppy brings people out.”

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