Thirty years have passed since the last Clear Creek High School boys doubles team made its way to the University Interscholastic League Tennis State Championships.
Wildcats Carter Crookston and Michael Raji, however, are hoping a long-awaited return trip will be one to remember.
The duo opens Class 6A state tournament play today at 10 a.m. against Austin Vandegrift’s Nic Cusano and Blaine Kanak at Texas A&M University’s George P. Mitchell Tennis Center in College Station.
“We don’t know too much about the Vandegrift team, but we do know that to make it to this tournament, you’ve gotta be one of the best teams in the state, so we are expecting tough competition,” Raji said of the Region IV-6A runners-up.
But Crookston and Raji have proven they are one of the top teams, as well, winning both the District 24-6A and Region III-6A titles in impressive fashion, most recently the regional tournament, where they upset Houston Cypress Ranch’s No. 1-seeded Dylan Payne and Abhi Ramireddy in the final, 6-4, 7-6 (8-6).
“I always knew we would do well as a team,” Crookston said. “But this spring season we developed really good chemistry that translates into us working together better as a team on the court.”
“Michael and Carter are shot makers, simply put,” Clear Creek head coach Derick Geise added. “They have amazing hands at the net and are able to create shots from any angle on the court.
“They both have a very competitive mentality and have grown dramatically as a pair as the spring season moved along.”
The Wildcats did get a partial sneak preview of what the Vandegrift pair looks like since Cusano played doubles with a different partner in the Kemah Boardwalk Invitational back in March.
“At this stage, we know every doubles team will be a challenge,” Geise said. “But we are confident that Michael and Carter can hang right with the best, and it will come down to who comes out fast and ready to play Thursday and Friday.”
Ironically, it was Raji’s first coach at Clear Creek High School, Patrick Marrie, who last made it to state with partner David Gabel in 1988.
Now two years following Marrie’s retirement, Raji undoubtedly would like to better his initial mentor’s third-place finish with another gold medal around his and Crookston’s necks come Friday.
“To bring home the trophy, we have to sustain the level that has brought us here,” Raji said. “We can’t take any point for granted, and we need to keep our attacking mindset so that we can stay on the front foot.”
That train of thought worked to perfection in the Region III-6A championship match against Payne and Ramireddy, where the Wildcats fell behind in the second-set tiebreaker, 6-4, but rallied to win four straight points for a dramatic comeback.
“We just stayed aggressive and positive,” Raji said afterward. “That helped us a lot.”
One month later, “Our hard work on and off the court has really pushed us to make it to this point thus far,” Raji added. “The fact that we are friends off the court allows us to create a bond that goes beyond just teammates.”
Should the Wildcats get past Vandegrift, they would play either The Woodlands’ Garrett Skelly/Hunter Bajoit or Plano West’s Arjun Kersten/Caden Moortgat in the semifinals at 3:30 p.m. today.
The goal, though, is to be playing in Friday’s final at 10 a.m.
“It will take all of our focus and energy, but I feel confident we can do it,” Crookston said.