The Charlotte Catholic boys' tennis team expects to be the best.
The Cougars have won 20 straight conference championships and 139 consecutive conference matches in the Rocky River, Queen City and now ME-GA 7 leagues. They also have claimed five state championships since 1990, including 2A titles in 1992, 1997, 2004 and 2005 and a 3A championship in 2008.
But while the Cougars have established themselves as one of the top programs in the state under 33-year head coach Ken Hazen, their focus remains on what they have done lately.
"We have had a lot of success over the years, and I think our players know the expectations that we have," said Hazen, who has won 360 matches without a conference loss since 1990.
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However, "To lose 5-4 the last two seasons in the state semifinals has been tough. I think we want a state championship even more now," said Hazen.
This year's team starts with the state's best individual player for the last two seasons in two-time defending state individual champ Kyle Johnson.
Johnson, a junior who is 46-6 in his high school singles career, is great to have at the top of a lineup that also features returning junior starters Nick Bursch, Matthew Martinez and Zach Sachee. Sophomores Brian Vercauteren and JoJo Humann will be expected to live up to the winning tradition.
"I feel very good about what I've seen from our team in the preseason," said Hazen, the second-most-senior coach at Charlotte Catholic behind football coach Jim Oddo. "But we do have a mixture of experience and youth, and it's my job to bring them together as a team."
While he doesn't have a clear senior leader, Hazen will lean on Johnson, Bursch, Martinez and Sachee this season as they attempt to get back to the state championship.
The junior quartet has gone 24-8 - 12-0 in ME-GA 7 conference play - over the past two seasons, good for most teams but average by Catholic standards.
"At Catholic, we expect to win all of the time," Johnson said. "Now it is our time. We want to win a team (state) championship). The pride of playing for something bigger than yourself is something I look forward to."
Johnson also will be playing for a spot in the N.C. high school tennis record books, as he is the only player ever to win 3A state individual titles in each of his first two seasons. His goal is two win all four years.
"The opportunity to do something that no one has ever done motivates me every day," said Johnson.
But while Johnson will be focused on another individual title, he says the team title is just as important to him and his teammates.
"Every player who puts on a Catholic tennis (uniform) wants to live up to what we have done in the past," Hazen said. "I think this group has a chance to do something great."