MATTHEWS – There’s sort of a rallying cry around the Carmel Christian boys tennis program that stems from their first season when the Cougars were snubbed by the NCISAA tournament seeding committee.
The Cougars thought they were good enough to compete. The state did not.
So, for the past three seasons coming into 2019, Carmel Christian has made sure to win the state title each season in dominating fashion.
But what would this year bring with the loss of UNC Wilmington freshman Dillon Gooch, the team’s leader the past four seasons?
It turns out, everything fell right into place.
Senior Alec Strause returned from injury late last season and took over the No.1 spot that Gooch had vacated. This season, the Christopher Newport commit lost just one match, a tiebreaker to Charlotte Country Day’s No. 1.
At No. 2 was Matthew Gooch, a junior and Dillon’s brother. Matthew Gooch and Strause also played No. 1 doubles for the Cougars and were a strength all season long.
“Matthew’s serve has gotten stronger and stronger,” coach Kellie Kayton said. “He’s 6-5 now, and he has an amazing kick-serve. He’s even more consistent than last year from the baseline. He’s a smart, smart player. And Alec has been consistently good all year for us.”
Before the season, the No. 3 spot was up for grabs but seventh-grader Gabe Avram grabbed hold of it early and held it throughout the year.
“He was an anchor at that spot. Just amazing,” Kayton said. “He stepped up in the tournament. I’m sure he was very nervous when he first started in doubles, but he settled right down and just played his game. He’s a very smart player because he’s playing kids older and stronger, but he’s very good at dissecting his opponents’ game and what he has to do to win.”
The 4-6 spots in the lineup remained intact and relatively young with senior Rob Gruber, eighth-grader Sam Halverson and freshman Reed Hilton rounding out the regular rotation and giving the Cougars another support to lean on as they rolled through their season.
“Rob, Sam Halvorsen and Reed Hilton got to play the same positions that they did last season,” Kayton said. “And that helped solidify us and gave us strength throughout our lineup. They had another year of experience, so that helped us, too. They were great all year.”
That group led the Cougars to close wins over Division 1 powers Providence Day (5-4), Charlotte Latin (5-4) and 3A heavyweights Marvin Ridge (5-4 on the road) and Weddington (6-3).
Their only losses were to Division I finalists Country Day (9-0) and Greensboro Day, (5-4) who clipped the Cougars in their regular-season finale.
In all, the Cougars went 17-2, got the NCISAA Division II’s No. 1 seed and blitzed through the season with a 109-29 match record.
In the opening rounds of the playoffs, Carmel Christian rolled through Carolina Day and Asheville School in 5-0 wins before meeting 13-3 No. 2-seed Cape Fear in the finals.
The Cougars gave up one match but prevailed with a relatively easy 5-1 win and their fourth consecutive title.
“I’m so happy for them,” Kayton said. “All of our players have something in common in that they will all gut out a match and stay out there as long as it takes and whatever it takes to win a match. These guys have more heart than anyone could imagine. They encourage each other and it’s truly more than just a team.”
Kayton and her team are settling in and enjoying this one for a while, but she has to be thinking about what the future could hold for a team already with four titles and bringing four of six singles players back after the graduation of Strause and Gruber.
But the future is still strong for next year with even more reinforcements on their way.
“This year proved that God gives you immeasurably more than you ask for, and we were able to win our fourth,” she said. “We will lose Alec and Rob this year, but we have a lot of young, good kids. We’re excited for the future.”