South Charlotte

Cougars' Johnson 3 for 3 and going for the sweep

The weather was Kyle Johnson's toughest competition at the N.C. High School Athletic Association 3A boys' tennis championship.

Johnson's semifinal match in the morning was delayed after overnight storms soaked the courts at the Burlington Tennis Center. When the Charlotte Catholic junior finally started his May 14 match, he easily beat Raleigh Cardinal Gibbons' Matt Daly 7-5, 6-2.

A few hours later, Johnson was tied 2-2 in the first set of the state championship match against Western Alamance's Eric Green when the rain came pouring down. Instead of waiting for the rain to stop and the courts to dry, the players made the 30-minute drive to indoor courts in Greensboro to finish the match.

The rain, the delay and the change of venue couldn't stop Johnson, as he went on to beat Green 7-6, 7-5, to win his third straight individual state title.

Johnson is just the seventh player in state history to win three straight state titles and the only one to do it in his first three years in high school.

"It was a lot of work," said Johnson, 17, of his third title. "It wasn't just me. It was my dad, my mom and my coach."

His mom, Lisette, exposed him to tennis during yearly summer trips to her home country of El Salvador. He started playing at age 5.

His dad, Kyle Sr., motivated him. Kyle Sr. coached Johnson in soccer until fifth grade. They also played tennis together. When they first started playing, Kyle Sr. always won. Johnson was determined to get better so he could win.

That determination and his mental toughness is what Johnson says is his biggest strength.

"It's going to take someone really big to take me down," he said.

So far, no one has. Johnson has a career record of 70-6 and hasn't dropped a single match this year. Since his first match in his freshman year at Charlotte Catholic, Johnson has been the team's No. 1 player.

The first day of practice that first year, coach Ken Hazen had Johnson playing against another freshman. He saw him playing well and decided to move him up.

"Within a couple of days, I'm having him play people in the top six, and he's still playing really well," said Hazen, who has been coaching boys' tennis at Catholic for 34 years. "I knew he was good but I didn't know he was that good."

Hazen said Johnson's strength is his court movement. He's quick and gets in position well and rarely has to stretch his 5-foot-10 frame for a ball, said Hazen. He also has a strong work ethic and has improved steadily in his three years at Catholic.

"He has very good focus," said Hazen. "He'll go through streaks where he doesn't miss. ... That means you have to beat him."

Bev Fisher, the tennis coach at conference rival Waddell, has also been impressed. Catholic uses the courts at Waddell for home matches, and Fisher often stays to watch Johnson play.

He's patient, she said, and doesn't just hit the ball as hard as he can, like some players. He's also a great sport, she said.

Despite his individual success, the Catholic team has fallen short in the dual-team playoffs the last two years, losing in the state semifinals 5-4 both years. The Cougars won the 2008 championship.

"You can have a superstar, but the most points he can score in a match is two," said Hazen - one singles and one doubles.

After defeating defending champion Asheville 7-2 Thursday, Catholic earned a spot in the 3A state championship match against Cardinal Gibbons, which was played Saturday.

Johnson is focused on winning the team title.

Not winning a team title so far is really disappointing, he said. "That would mean a whole lot more to me than an individual title."

Outside the high school season, Johnson plays in tournaments year round. He's also a history buff and loves to play soccer. He said he wants to try out for the Charlotte Catholic soccer team next fall.

He wants to go to Virginia Tech because he loves the campus and his grandfather taught there. He's also interested in DePaul University in Chicago, his favorite city.

Working on a history project recently, Johnson came across a quote he liked from swimmer Mark Spitz, who won seven gold medals in the 1972 Olympics: "If you fail to prepare, you're prepared to fail."

Johnson hasn't failed on the court yet.

Next year he will try to become the first boys' player in the state to win four state titles, though he wouldn't be the first player from Charlotte Catholic. The Cougars' Laura Cowman won four-straight from 1989-92.

Johnson is preparing to make his own history.

"I want to win four," he said.

"I don't think anyone can stop me."