Say goodbye to one of the area’s most impressive regular season streaks – and maybe hello to some long-awaited postseason success.
Due to upcoming realignment for the 2016-17 school year, Clayton’s 105-match girls tennis victory string in the Greater Neuse River Conference has come to an official end as the Comets will be moving down to the 3A level, at least for the next four years.
While Clayton has owned the GNRC, the Comets have struggled in the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A State Playoffs – a trend that continued (and ended) in Clayton’s 4A finale on Tuesday, a 5-2 home loss to Pinecrest in the second round.
Pinecrest (16-2) advanced to meet the winner of the Green Hope-Panther Creek winner in third-round action, while the Comets (17-1) will focus on reloading next fall with a roster that returns four of its top five performers, though No. 1 singles standout Carmelle Joyner will certainly be missed.
“For the entire time we have been in 4A (over the past decade), we haven’t been able to get past the second round of the team playoffs in either the boys or girls,” said Clayton veteran coach Kenneth Stivason. “I think we will be much more competitive in 3A (in the postseason). We will still find it hard to compete with some of the elite 3A teams like Union Pines or Terry Sanford. But overall, I think the move will be good for us.”
Coming into Tuesday’s match, Stivason knew his club would need to play near-perfect tennis to be able to stay with the Patriots, who are led by sisters Emma and Caroline Landry and Chappy and Claudia Ray.
The Comets were able to pick up singles victories at No. 1 (Joyner) and No. 3 (Crystal Andersen) to force doubles play, but Pinecrest wrapped things up with a No. 3 doubles triumph from Lizzy McClymont and Maddie Arrington.
The first two doubles matches were close and entertaining, but were not completed after the Patriots clinched the overall victory.
“Pinecrest has a solid team,’’ said Stivason, who has 34 seasons of coaching experience at Clayton between the girls and boys clubs. “They just have a deeper lineup than us. We did the best we could, but Pinecrest doesn’t have any weaknesses.’’
Clayton’s singles victories were the highlights of the day for the Comets as Joyner closed her prep career in style, and Andersen, a sophomore, displayed her squad’s promise and potential for the future.
Taking on state qualifier Emma Landry, the left-handed Joyner posted a 6-1, 6-3 decision.
“I really wanted to win my singles match,” said Joyner, who possesses a unique blend of finesse and power. “I knew this could be my last match (at Clayton), so I wanted to win.”
For all of her success, including a 17-1 mark this fall, Joyner was never able to get past the 4A Mideast Regional and qualify for the state meet.
“In my opinion, Carmelle is the best player in (North Carolina) who didn’t get to play in the states,’’ Stivason said. “She always had back luck with her draws. She lost to the state champion twice and the state runner-up once in four years. She was good enough to play at that level – she just couldn’t get a good draw.”
However, Joyner’s consolation prize is an enviable one as she has verbally committed to continue her court career at the University of Hawaii-Hilo.
“I was looking into schools that had marine biology programs,” Joyner said of the unlikely partnership. “I saw that (Hilo) offered that major, so I e-mailed the coach (Tina McDermott) just to see what would happen. Next thing I know, she e-mailed me back.”
She continued: “We kept in touch and I decided to visit out there over the summer. I received a scholarship offer and accepted. It was all kind of unexpected. I am really looking forward to it.”
Joyner’s presence at the top of the Clayton lineup will be difficult to replace, though the Comets will welcome back Nos. 2-5 in their rotation (in order, junior Sydney Rushing, Andersen, freshman Hannah Riley and sophomore Jackie Rollins).
“We had a fun year -- I think we were closer (as a team) this year than the last one,” Andersen said. “Next year should be good because we have most of our lineup back. We think (going to 3A) will be a good thing – we are excited about that. We just have to see what new (freshmen) we have coming out next year.”