Known more for his powers as North Johnston’s girls basketball coach, Jay Poole became an unofficial superhero — and lucky team bus driver — during his school’s storybook surge through the N.C. High School Athletic Association 2A boys tennis playoffs.
Poole transported the Panthers to their postseason opener at First Flight. And that would be the beginning of a long journey that would take North Johnston and its newly minted chauffeur to a first-ever trip to the East regional finals, where the mighty N.C. School of Science and Math Unicorns were waiting for a Wednesday showdown at Whippoorwill Park.
Early in the match, even Poole admitted that his mascot magic had all but been vanquished by the formidable Unicorns, who are now one step away from gaining their third state court crown over the past eight seasons.
“I’ve got nothing for a Unicorn,” Poole said with the shake of a head.
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Neither has any other opponent to date as NCSSM (13-0) remained undefeated with a 6-0 decision over the Panthers to advance to Saturday’s state title contest against Brevard in Burlington.
Play was halted after the singles matches, which concluded with a Unicorns’ sweep by a combined games score of 72-3.
“(NCSSM) is a force to be reckoned with,’’ said North Johnston No. 1 singles player Trey Motley, who was topped 6-0, 6-0 by Depei Yu. “We knew it wasn’t going to be easy.”
Yu, a powerful lefty with a lethal serve to go with an impressive volley game, secured an ace on the first point of the match — and was dominant from there.
“Depei is an incredible player,” said NCSSM coach Richard McClenny, who has coached the Unicorns since 2002. “He is a hard worker who puts in a lot of time on the court. Most guys who come to school here stop playing (junior circuit) tournaments because of the academic load. But Depei is still doing that; he wants to play as much as he can.”
Yu, who hails from Greensboro, only took up tennis at age 11 at the request of a family friend, who was looking for a hitting partner for her son. Yu proved to be a quick learner, but this is his first year of high school competition because he went to an early college school in Guilford County before arriving in Durham.
“The thing I really like here is being part of a team,” Yu said. “I’ve watched a lot of college tennis, and it’s amazing how those guys are part of a team in what is considered an individual sport. I’ve never done that before, and it has been a great experience. I would love to win a state championship with these guys. It would be a dream come true. I hope we get a shot at it.”
Yu made the state semifinals last weekend at the 2A individuals, while the Unicorns boasted a pair of state quarterfinalists in doubles. Yu was disappointed with his result against eventual champ Joseph Schrader from Brevard in the semis, but will get another opportunity at Schrader if NCSSM in the team finale.
With the individual part of the schedule completed, Science and Math could concentrate on closing out its team slate in style, beginning with Wednesday’s sharp triumph against the upstart Panthers.
“We have some advantages here, like having all juniors and seniors,” McClenny said. “We get guys who have already played at other places. But the disadvantages are that the academic work of the school means that we sometimes don’t know who we will have at practices or matches.”
It isn’t until after the school’s annual Welcome Day in the fall that McClenny knows for sure what the makeup of his roster will be for the coming season.
“We have built a strong program, and kids know that,” McClenny said. “Kids know that, if they come here, they will have quality players to hit with. That wasn’t necessarily the case when I first started coaching here.”
While the Unicorns are now regarded as one of the state’s top tennis titans, North Johnston (18-5) boasted a limited court tradition until this season’s unexpected playoff march.
The Panthers, coached by first-year skipper David Anderson, took second this spring in the Eastern Plains Conference before rolling through a trio of postseason opponents to make its inaugural Final Four appearance.
“After we went down to First Flight and won, you could see the attitudes start to change,” Anderson said. “We started thinking that we could do something here. The guys started looking at the NCHSAA brackets to see what they could do.”
North Johnston’s historic odyssey would come to an end against the Unicorns, but the Panthers hardly looked like losers as they accepted the regional runner-up plaque at the conclusion of the match.
“Safe to say, there aren’t many tennis plaques in our trophy case,” a North Johnston parent shouted as the players collectively lifted the plaque with glee.
And the best may be yet to come for the Panthers, who have only one senior among their top six rotation performers.
“I think this match showed us that we have to work in the offseason to get to this level,” Anderson said. “With the success we have had this year, the guys are already talking about how we need to play in the summer and the fall to be able to get back (to the region final).
“The exposure we have gotten from this has been great, and hopefully that will make some of the younger kids eventually want to get involved with our program.”