Robert Kelly loved donning Cardinal Gibbons’ green, white and gold. He wore the colors with so much pride he found himself faced with a difficult decision his sophomore year at the Raleigh high school.
He could continue as a talented multisport athlete playing soccer and tennis as well as a year-round schedule of junior programs in both sports. Or he could step away for a year from the Gibbons team experience to improve his tennis.
Kelly chose tennis 24/7. Since then the senior has reached a nationally elite level on the USTA junior circuit, earned a scholarship to North Carolina and collected high school state titles.
“Playing for Gibbons was huge,” Kelly said after his final Crusaders match. “I was sorry to miss that year, but it was best for me.”
He led Gibbons to its fourth straight N.C. High School Athletic Association 3A dual-team title Saturday while playing No. 1 singles the past two years. He claimed a second consecutive 3A individual singles crown a week earlier.
“There is a lot of emotion for me leaving Gibbons,” he said. “I’ll always represent Gibbons and always be a Crusader.”
Kelly was 51-0 the past two high school seasons. The 26-0 mark his senior year included a win over his close friend, Wakefield junior Bo Boyden, the 4A state singles champ. Kelly won 6-4, 6-4 in a nonconference match.
“That win was fun to get,” he said, adding, “I’ll be able to lord it over him. But Bo is a great competitor.”
Gibbons junior Matt Galush, who teamed with junior Noah Constantine to win the 3A state doubles title, said Kelly helped him prepare for a leadership role in 2015.
“He gets into all the matches,” Galush said. “He takes care of his business and then he supports everyone else on the team. He doesn’t act up.”
Kelly credited Gibbons coach Andrew Gibbons for emphasizing teamwork.
“He does a lot to motivate us,” he said. “He talks about being able to say we’re state champions.”
Kelly’s rankings jumped from the No. 195 national tennis recruit when he was a soccer-tennis athlete to No. 37 by the time he signed with the Tar Heels. He is now No. 22.
His USTA 18s ranking is No. 67, but he recently beat Kessler McClain of Calhoun, Ga., who was ranked No. 12. Kelly’s junior career already includes a 2013 USTA national doubles title when he teamed with Boyden.
Looking ahead, the 6-foot, 165-pounder is focused on his physical game.
“It’s a bigger game in college,” Kelly said. “Guys are bigger and stronger, and I have to get used to the speed of the game. I have to be fitter and mentally tougher for the longer matches. I’m looking forward to it.”