Charlotte Catholic’s Johnson sets record with fourth state tennis title
by Andrew Stark
Charlotte Catholic boys tennis star Kyle Johnson has always wanted to make his mark on Cougars’ athletics.
Growing up attending Cougars soccer games, Johnson dreamed of becoming a star on the field. He eventually gave up soccer to focus on his tennis game and now has done something that no other North Carolina high school player ever has accomplished: win four consecutive state titles.
On May 12, Johnson defeated Raleigh Cardinal Gibbons’ Matt Daley (6-4, 6-3) at Burlington Tennis Center to earn his fourth Class 3A individual state championship in a row.
It has been a rewarding journey for Johnson, who battled injuries and the state’s top public- and private-school players, en route to making history and earning a scholarship to play at DePaul University in Illinois.
After winning his first state title as a freshman in 2009, Johnson remembers Charlotte Catholic Dean of Students Randy Belk sitting him down and saying, half-jokingly, that he would be expected to become the first player to win four state titles.
“It was planted in my head since Mr. Belk sat me down that day, and (it’s) definitely something that I have wanted to do,” Johnson said. “It is a big relief to have done it, and it’s something that I am very proud of.
“There has been a great deal of pressure. Some of it from the outside and some from me, but I have always had the mind-set that I am going to let people think and say what they want and I am going to do my talking on the court and let my game speak for itself.”
Johnson’s game has spoke volumes, as he has been dominant in his Cougars’ career, amassing an 89-7 singles record. During the postseason, he’s been even better, losing just one set in his four years of regional and state competition.
“It is amazing what he has been able to achieve,” said Cougars coach Ken Hazen. “I think he has handled it very, very well. He came into the school as a freshman with very high expectations, but he has handled it so well, has worked hard and has gotten better each year.”
Entering this season, Johnson had a scare that nearly cut his senior season short. Playing in a recreation league basketball game the day after accepting the award for North Carolina’s tennis player of the year, Johnson took a hard fall. After feeling intense pain, he showed up to school the next day on crutches, having suffered a fractured tibula.
“That was the most painful and worst injury I have ever had,” Johnson said. “At the time, it was the biggest nightmare of my life. If I had torn my (anterior cruciate ligament), I would still be out now, but it made me want to get out there and fight hard to get back.”
It took a while for Johnson to regain full strength and trust in his knee, and he missed the Cougars’ first five matches, agonizing from the sidelines as he cheered on his teammates. Once he returned to action, it took even longer to get back to 100 percent.
When he returned to full participation, Johnson said the injury was a blessing that made him realize how badly he wanted the fourth championship.
His singles win last weekend wrote the final chapter in Johnson’s individual career, but as the Cougars entered the state dual-team playoffs, Johnson felt his business was very much unfinished.
Johnson had never led the Cougars to the championship. Last year, they made the finals and have reached the semifinals the previous two seasons.
Unfortunately for Johnson, his other high school tennis dream will not come true. Charlotte Catholic narrowly lost to Waxhaw Marvin Ridge, 5-4, on May 15 in the regional semifinals.
Hazen said Johnson has always shown an affinity for the rich tradition of Cougars tennis and where he stands in it, calling the senior the ultimate teammate who’s genuinely concerned with leading Charlotte Catholic to its first team title since 2008.
“We talk about where his place is within this program, and I told him that nobody will ever be able to break his record,” Hazen said. “People could win four titles, but nobody will ever win five. He has that record for life. I know winning a state title is a big deal to him, but he has done something nobody will ever take away.”
Where does Hazen think Johnson ranks in Cougars tennis history?
“We have a rule with our Cougars Hall of Fame that a student must have been graduated for 10 years to be eligible,” Hazen said. “I was thinking this weekend that I am going to write a letter to make sure that in 2022 there is no doubt about who is getting in.
“This one is a no-brainer, a no vote necessary as to who gets in. He has a free pass and will go down as one of the best ever. Nobody can take that from him. I just hope I’m around to see him get inducted.”