As Cary High heads into the tennis post-season, there is little question among the players that their pre-season expectations have been met.
"We would have liked to have beaten Green Hope this year, but that's how it goes," said senior Matt Davis, who has gone 12-5 while playing No. 2 or No. 3 singles.
What Tri-Seven Conference team, though, would not like to have beaten the Falcons? Green Hope just capped off a fifth consecutive undefeated conference regular season -- a run of 60 consecutive wins.
When the Imps sat down collectively to set the goals for the season, they did so with realistic expectations. Improvement over a year ago was paramount, a win over Green Hope would be nice, a deeper run in the NCHSAA 4-A Dual Team Tournament would be icing.
"The main thing was to improve," said senior Grant Kennedy, who played No. 4 singles. "We had a good year last year (finishing second in Tri-Seven and reaching the second round of the NCHSAA Dual Team Tournament), so we just wanted to build off of that."
The Imps went 13-4 in the regular-season and tied Apex High for second in the Tri-Seven.
On Monday, Cary and Apex were scheduled to play a one-match playoff to determine the league's No. 2 representative to the NCHSAA Dual Team Tournament, which opens on May 9. The loser would likely be in the running for a wild card berth into the 32-team field.
Today, Wednesday, the Imps will compete in the Tri-Seven Tournament at Cary Tennis Center. The tournament concludes on Thursday. Start time on both days is 3 p.m.
On paper, Cary's season has been quite similar to last year. The Imps lost twice to Green Hope and lost to powerhouse Broughton High. Also in the mix is a 7-2 loss to Apex on Friday.
But the record does not explain the entire story. Take the Green Hope losses, for example.
"In each match, a few key victories could have easily swung the match in our favor," said Kennedy of 5-4 and 6-3 losses to the Falcons. "We played them much tighter than we did last year."
Cary has been led this season by sophomore Justin Radloff, who likely will earn conference player of the year honors after going 12-0 in league play.
On a team that features five seniors in its top seven, Radloff said there has been no animosity toward his playing No. 1 despite being an underclassman.
"I really don't think they mind," he said.
In fact, his teammates have embraced Radloff's talents and used them to improve their own games.
"In practice, when you're playing against him, he makes us want to improve," said junior Will Watson, who has played No. 2 singles most of the season and went 10-7 during the regular season. "Justin has helped raise our games."
Said Radloff: "I'm happy they feel that way. I think we all strive to be better than we are."
Cary coach Andy Zappia, in his 18th season, believes this team is unique not so much because of its talent but the level of camaraderie.
"This team has been a pleasure to coach," he said. "It is the most fun I have had in years, because they have a real connection as a team. They play with determination, character and integrity. Win or lose, I have great respect for this team."
Off-court friendships have created a cohesive team, and the players say it is not uncommon for teammates to just hang out together on the weekends.
"We have gotten to know each other off the court," Watson said, "and that has helped us learn to play as a team."
That, in turn, has created intense practice sessions that are often more pressure-packed than actual matches.
"That's because you're probably fighting for your seed," Radloff said. "If you lose in a match, you just lose the match, you don't lose your seed. But in challenge matches, you lose and you're likely dropping a spot on the team."
The leadership of co-captains Davis and Kennedy has also been a factor.
"They've shown us what it means to play like a team," Watson said. "At practices when coach Zappia is at a meeting or running late, they know we need to be running and make sure we are. They've also taught us to step up and help the younger players."
A year ago, Cary bounced Enloe High 6-3 in the opening round of the state dual team tournament before losing to Greenville Rose High 5-4. Kennedy does not know how the post-season will unfold, but considers the season a success not confined to sheer numbers.
"If you look at the overall scores and the records of the top four players, we have improved," said Kennedy, who entered the post-season with a 14-3 record.
Also contributing to the Imps' success has been Michael Neuer at No. 5 and Nathan Johnston at No. 6. Austin Skakle has also bolstered the team while splitting time playing soccer.
The doubles teams of Radloff and Watson (10-5 overall), and Davis and Kennedy (13-2) "have also made major game-changing contributions," Zappia said.
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