There was little consternation on who was Hernando County's finest male tennis player this season.
The Hernando Today staff along with the area coaches unanimously agreed that multi-sport student/athlete and recent Springstead graduate Carl Wesley Zee was the Boys Tennis Player of the Year.
The 5-foot-8, 150-pounder capped off a four-year prep career with a fine senior campaign on the courts.
In No. 2 singles action, the 18-year-old Zee captured his first-ever district title - one of four blue-ribbon performances by the first-ever Springstead team to return home as district champion in 33 seasons - at River Ridge's tennis courts.
At No. 1 doubles, he teamed with sophomore Patrick Deslaurier to claim a second first-place blue ribbon. That win guaranteed an automatic berth in the Class 3A state finals in Seminole County.
After districts, in Springstead's first-ever home regional quarterfinal, Zee had a hand in clinching two of his team's three points in a hard-to-swallow 4-3 loss at Delta Woods Park to visiting Ocala-Forest.
A week later in the 91st annual FHSAA Finals at Altamonte Springs' Sanlando Park, Zee and Deslaurier represented Springstead
The Eagle duo - Hernando County's lone representatives - was beaten in the opening round by Tampa-Chamberlain's Joseph Fisher/Hunter O'Brien, 6-1, 6-1.
When the curtains came down, Zee finished his best-ever singles campaign at 14-4.
In his wake, Zee's 69 singles matches surpassed Clayton Etchison's 62 for the most ever at SHS. He finished third in singles victories (42). Chris Greifenberger (46) holds the school record.
In doubles, Zee and Deslaurier finished with a county-best 14-3 won-lost slate in the sport's toughest doubles slot.
Zee concluded doubles play with two new school standards: most career matches (67) and most career wins (43).
Most importantly, Zee's two district titles this year tied Hank Deslaurier's mark set in 2012-13.
It's easy to see why Zee, who graduated with a 3.67 grade point average, was the consensus choice among the area coaches.
"He's very deserving. . He was our captain for two years," pointed out the Eagles' second-year mentor Joe Nicolai, who was voted Hernando Today's Coach of the Year for the seventh time. "Not just a great competitor, but a great kid and team player.
"When he lost his challenge match (to retain No. 1 singles), he didn't sulk. Instead, it was as if he said, 'I can do this.'
"We'll miss his energy, his quality of play, his leadership - the whole package."
"He has the drive to always get better - not many people have that. He's definitely a grinder and someone who is self-motivated," added Hernando's first-year skipper Erik Lawson.
"Let's see, he won two district titles and won two regional matches; that's why he's my pick for the best player," pointed out Weeki Wachee mentor Bob Croyle. "He won when no one else did."
"Carl was a two-time district champ this year and more importantly he was a great teammate. He was the class of that Springstead team," remarked Nature Coast's eighth-year skipper Tom Brown. "I like Carl, he's handled himself well for years and he's a super kid."
"When I heard the news, I couldn't believe it," said Zee. "I ran to my mom and told her I was voted Player of the Year. I really thought Patrick would win it. Regardless of what happened this year, he's the one with a chance to get a college scholarship.
"On the key to my success? Often times, I'm not the best player out there, but I try to have the most heart."
Carl was born in the Chicago suburb of Vernon Hills, Illinois, and is oldest of two children to Phil and Ellen Zee.
The Zee family relocated to the Sunshine State when Carl was three. They've called Spring Hill home for the past 15 years.
Zee's first venture into the athletic arena was when he was 4, when he participated in both tennis and soccer.
He recalls his father "sorta pushing me into tennis."
On the pitch, he played mostly striker and left midfielder. He enjoyed playing soccer until seventh grade. That's when, he said, "I stopped playing with the Hernando Heat; it wasn't enjoyable playing on a rec team that was getting beat every match. It wasn't like we all lacked talent, but we just had some guys who weren't pulling their weight."
Instead of soccer, Zee concentrated on being self-reliant on the courts.
"With tennis it's all on me," described Zee. "There's no one to blame if you play poorly."
At Challenger K-8, Zee's game kept climbing as he played under former Hernando High skipper Brett Teitelman.
In Zee's three seasons with the Navigators under Teitelman, Challenger captured the Hernando County Middle School Athletic Conference title three times.
"I owe Coach Teitelman a lot," described Zee. "He's a great guy and great teacher. He was the first coach I had that really emphasized hard work and not just in the technical aspects, but in every sport I played. The idea was to become a better athlete.
"I was introduced to suicide drills at Challenger. Most kids dread them," offered Zee. "I thought they were fun."
After matriculating to Springstead, Zee missed the soccer tryouts under head coach Sal Calabrese.
Then, according to Zee, "my grades weren't up to par with my parents. In their eyes, anything less than a 'B' is not good enough."
As a result, he did not go out for soccer as a sophomore or junior.
Just before his junior year his father asked him if he wanted to try running in a 5K race. At his first 5K, he ran into the Springstead cross-country coaches, who invited him to try out for the team.
Over the next two seasons under Brandon Wright, Zee transformed himself into the Eagles' most consistent performer.
"Because I played soccer, I was used to running. I found that running was mentally relaxing," said Zee.
For his efforts, Zee was named SHS' lone All-County cross-country selection last fall.
Zee returned to the pitch as well for his senior year.
"It was something of a rebuilding mode, but I wanted to play," he said. "So many of our guys had better skills so I was content getting whatever minutes came my way. I was determined even if I didn't play a lick, I was not going to quit. Sure, it was kind of frustrating being on the pine, but we had kids who were better-suited."
On evaluating his senior year in tennis, "Coach Nicolai definitely helped my game," explained Zee. "He helped me focus more on the strategic aspects of the game. I was also receiving personal coaching from Judy (Jeanette)."
On how his overall game improved, "My ground strokes just got better," Zee said. "As a freshman and sophomore I was using a questionable forehand. It was unorthodox. Then I switched to an extreme western grip. That move kind of took the spin off my shots.
"As a result of the new grip, I started hitting my forehand deep enough to become a weapon," he added. "I also cut down on my double faults which helped my overall game."
Zee believes his ascent began during his junior year.
"I reached the district finals (at No. 1 singles), but I knew I wasn't winning with (Land O' Lakes') Colin (Roller) there," pointed out Zee. "We had a great run that year and almost won districts; we lost in a tiebreaker to Land O' Lakes. But they were a solid team.
"I think that run carried over to this year," said Zee. "It was as if, 'We could do this.'"
Zee didn't sulk after losing a challenge match to Patrick Deslaurier for the coveted No. 1 singles position.
"I think things worked out for a reason," said Zee. "I truly believe either one of us could have won at No. 2. If things would have switched, the same results would have happened."
Zee's career highlight included his two district titles along with his initial trip to states.
"To me, winning singles was special because it took me four years to get there," he said. "But the doubles championship was our ticket to states. It's hard enough to get one of those (blue ribbons), let alone two. I take a lot of pride in those two wins."
In describing states, "The greatest doubles win I was associated with was the win over Ocala-Forest in the regional. We came in with so much momentum," said Zee. "But then states is a different world. It was like Gainesville playing itself on every court; the competition was unreal.
"All I wanted to do was go out and give the best match I could. It would have been nice to make a deep run," summed up Zee. "But a lot of guys never get a chance to play at that level. Win or lose, that's why it's so special to have been there."
Zee, who graduated among the top 20 percent in his class, will apply his Bright Futures scholarship to attend USF.
As far as tennis, "I might walk on, but there's so many great D-I players," he said. "If not, I'll stay active by playing intramurals."
Before Zee departs to Hillsborough County, he's torn between studying engineering or architecture, or following his passion for music.
Being a sound engineer wouldn't be so far-fetched. Zee has been swayed by long-time SHS band director Richard Dasher.
"Mr. Dasher has the greatest job," smiles Zee. "He has so much fun teaching music; I love that, too. I wish I could have as much fun as he or even our music director at Challenger (Richard Gomez) had. I feel like as long as I'm supporting myself, why not give music a try?"
In the interim, Zee is part of a five-member metal band called Sincerely Forgotten.
"I'm the classic rocker in the band," said Zee. "Right now, I'm listening to The Alan Parsons Project's 'Eye in the Sky' album. It's great stuff."
As was his final year at the Mariner Boulevard campus.
By the Numbers: Springstead's Carl Zee
- Compiled by TONY CASTRO
* Denotes All-County selection.
+ Denotes district champion
$ Denotes state qualifier