One of Johnston County’s most prolific all-time boys tennis dynasties will once again morph into underdog mode for the NC High School Athletic Association 4A State Team Playoffs.
Over the past four years, Clayton has put together a historic court run that includes 62 consecutive team victories against Greater Neuse River 4A Conference opponents. The Comets are a sterling 18-0 overall this spring to go with an unblemished 14-0 mark in the league under veteran coach Kenneth Stivason.
No. 1 singles standout Klein Evans, last season’s state individual runner-up, leads a deep lineup that has won 159 singles or doubles matches in 2016 –while dropping only three.
But when it comes to a deep playoff run, the Comets have been unable to get past the second round over the past quartet of campaigns, mainly because they have had difficulty competing against some of the powerhouse programs in the Triangle.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
Stivason thinks his Comets have the firepower, skill and experience to be successful when the 4-A State Team Playoffs begin on May 3. Clayton will open against either Richmond County or Lumberton at home, but a potential showdown against titan Panther Creek could be looming two days later in the second round.
“I feel like we can compete better against some of these teams, but you are still talking about the best teams in the state,” Stivason said. “Of course, we have to get past that first round. Then, we would have to play the match of our lives to upset a team like Panther Creek.”
Clayton’s roster features three seniors in the top four of its rotation, including a pair of Division I signees in Evans (University of Richmond) and No. 3 Brooks Campbell (North Carolina Central). Banks Evans, Klein’s brother, has made an instant impact as a crafty, left-handed freshman at the No. 2 slot.
While Banks has three years remaining in his prep career, the remainder of the Comets’ top four is feeling a sense of urgency heading into both the individual and team portions of the postseason.
“We’ve talked about (the playoffs) a lot,’’ Klein Evans said. “In the past, we would win in the first round, lose in second round, and it would be over before we knew it. If all of our guys play well, I think we can compete against anybody in the state. I feel like this is the best team we’ve had in my four years here. The year to do something is this one. We kind of like being overlooked.’’
Klein Evans, who is a combined 33-0 in singles and doubles, will seek another extended appearance in the 4A Individuals, beginning with an appearance at the Mideast Regionals on May 6-7 at Middle Creek High School in Apex. Evans has reached the Sweet 16 of the states in each of the previous three seasons, including a finals loss last spring against Middle Creek’s Nick Stachowiak.
“I’m definitely eager to see what I can do,” Klein Evans said. “This is the most exciting time of the year. The competition is at another level. It brings out the best in my game.”
Said Stivason: “Klein is playing really well right now, but the Mideast is going to be very tough. Last year, the Final Four at the state was all guys from the Mideast. Your have kids from the Mideast who won’t qualify for the states, but could be second or third in some of the other regions.”
Klein Evans will be joined by No. 4 Naren Guha, also a senior, as part of the Comets’ singles contingent at the regionals. Banks Evans and Campbell will team up in doubles. Campbell is accustomed to playing doubles with Klein Evans, and the pair has never lost a match together. But with Klein Evans once again focusing on singles, Campbell will join up with Banks Evans for what could be a formidable duo.
Clayton closed out the GNRC portion of its schedule Wednesday with a 9-0 home decision against Southeast Raleigh as part of the Comets’ Senior Day festivities.
Stivason took a water cooler bath courtesy of his players, the upperclassmen posed for countless pictures and the official team mascot ‘George’ –the Evans’ dog – made a popular appearance. Klein Evans and Campbell even joined forces in doubles one more time to deliver an 8-1 victory.
As the event was winding down, Stivason scurried around with farewell greeting cards to be signed for his seniors. But while the end is certainly near for the school’s most talented senior tennis class in history, there are still a few final orders of business to be accomplished – most notably eliminating the Comets’ second-round team playoff drought.
“To get the opportunity to get to the third round, that would be amazing,” Guha said. “We know the competition is fierce.”
For Guha, it would be a fitting ending for a group that has not only enjoyed playing and winning together, but had plenty of good times off the court.
“One of the things I’ll remember most is how much fun these guys are to be with,” Guha said. “After road matches, we usually stop at a Sheetz, (Stivason) will go up to the (ordering) computer and always has trouble figuring out how to use it. We always laugh about that.”