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Sophomore is Cobras' new No. 1

By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 3, 2002

HUDSON -- At the end of last season, knowing his top three players would be graduating, Hudson coach Ron Ladimir took freshman Juan Castaneda aside to discuss the challenge awaiting him this spring.

"Laddy told me about being a No. 1, how it would challenge me," the 15-year-old said. "It's a huge jump, and it's a little bit intimidating, but it feels great.

"Our team is going to be good this year."

But if Castaneda doesn't take well to his first losses at No. 1 singles, he can hardly be blamed.

As a freshman playing No. 4, Castaneda went undefeated in 22 regular-season matches before losing his final match in the state tournament.

Ladimir said the biggest difference between playing fourth and first is mental -- not rushing points or trying to do too much.

"He'll have to be patient. If he tries to force things, he won't get away with things he could last year," said Ladimir, whose teams reached the state tournament in each of the past two seasons. "He just needs to keep his head, to wait until he gets a shot he can really do something with."

Castaneda said he learned much from last year's No. 1, Marcus Ressler, an all-Sunshine Athletic Conference selection. Ressler and Castaneda played No. 1 doubles together, winning 14 of their first 16 matches and giving the freshman an opportunity to learn from the talented senior.

"He was a good model, so I took a lot from watching him," said Castaneda, who embraces the challenge of that role over the next three years. "I want to keep a good image for the other guys to follow."

Castaneda worked on his volleys and serves over the summer after establishing himself as a consistent groundstrokes player as a freshman. To succeed at No. 1, he'll have to be less confined to the baselines, a freedom he's enjoying in practice as he prepares for the Cobras' season opener Thursday at Mitchell.

"He can rally with the best of them, but he's worked on his net game and gotten a lot more aggressive," Ladimir said.

The Cobras will need that aggressiveness. Castaneda and senior Robert Pollock are the only players with varsity experience among the dozen who came out for the team.

Watching the Australian Open men's final last weekend helped get Castaneda psyched about the season. He pulled for powerful Russian Marat Safin, but said his favorite player is American phenom Andy Roddick, whom he likes for his fiery play and tendency to break an occasional racket.

Castaneda, by contrast, is more the quiet type on the court, keeping to himself, far less likely to toss a racket in anger ("I have to pay for them," he explains). What he lacks in emotion he counters with focus, and if he doesn't yet have the years of experience normally associated with a No. 1 singles player, he's compensating with youthful confidence.

"He has a lot of good experience and practice behind him," Ladimir said. "He's a quiet one, but we'll have other juniors and seniors who can be vocal ones. He's focusing on how well he can progress this season, and that gives him a lot of potential."

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