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‘Special’ group at Clayton contemplates impact of COVID-19

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CLAYTON — The seniors on the 2020 Clayton girls soccer team are a special group for head coach Joseph Mott.
When Mott first came to the school in 2017 to coach soccer, eight now-seniors, who should be in the midst of their final season, first became Comets. Those players — Riley Mann, Isabella Sullivan, Carson Paschal, Megan Flockhart, Charlotte Evans, Lauren Holcombe, Gina Palazzolo and Gracie Miller — are the first full class Mott has coached. 

“I was new to Clayton just like they were new at Clayton, to the soccer program,” Mott said. “Not only have they grown with me, but I’ve grown with them and they mean a lot to me. They mean a lot to the program.”

As Mott got his bearings as head coach, this year’s seniors came into their own. And over their high school careers, they’ve accomplished a lot. 

Since then, the Class of 2020 has won three-consecutive Greater Neuse River Conference championships since 2017, compiling a 31-1-1 record in-conference during that span. The Comets have also laid claim to two county championships, winning what is now the NRFA Cup and played in 10 NCHSAA playoff games. 

A season ago, the team reached the final four, where it fell 2-0 to East Chapel Hill, the eventual NCHSAA 3-A champion.

After coming up just short of the big stage, the Comets had eyed this season as a chance to chase after its ultimate goal once more before a veteran core graduated. Which is why the stoppage of sports due to COVID-19 is all the harder for Mott and his team.

After all the buildup, all the accomplishments and time, the last season for eight seniors could already be over. 

“There’s a lot of us this year, a bigger class than normal,” said Flockhart, a senior forward. “We’ve all been through it together since freshman (year). There’s been some people that have come and gone and we’re pretty close. It's gonna be tough not being able to finish out our senior year together. And go on for one last ride.”

Gut punch

It was a rainy day in Clayton when the NCHSAA announced the games on March 13 would be the last for some time. 

The girls soccer team was set to begin an indoor practice in the gym when Mott walked in. He’d just seen a tweet moments before. Practice that day came with tears.  

Although rumors had circulated the season might be affected, the players had shrugged it off. Nothing of that sort had ever happened before and would be unlikely to. But then it became reality. 

“It was definitely a gut punch,” Flockhart said. 

The initial plan for the NCHSAA was to resume games as soon as April 6, but when Gov. Roy Cooper closed public schools until May 15, the suspension was extended until at least May 18 by the state’s governing body for athletics. The outlook for a salvageable season is bleak. 

In the days since that announcement, players have made it a priority to stay in contact with one another. They see it as a duty to take care of one another. In the midst of all of the uncertainty right now, all they have is each other. 

“It’s put a lot of things into perspective for me,” said Mann, a senior defender. “And I know eight seniors are going through the same thing. All of my teammates as a whole, we’re struggling, but we’ve all stayed in touch. I’ve just been trying to keep the team spirit alive, keep hope alive just on the off chance we do come back.”

Why they play

For soccer players all over the state, the game has been special for most of their lives. 

Flockhart described learning to play soccer like falling in love. Mann said the game has taught her so much, not only the rules of the game but lessons she’ll continue to use.

At Clayton, the intimate relationship for the game was soon to end for eight seniors. Though all eight have led to accomplished years on the field, they’ve all planned to pursue academics in college.

But they weren’t ready to give it up yet.

“For me personally, soccer has always kind of been an outlet,” Mann said. “I've started since I was three or four and I mean, it's been probably one of the biggest parts of my life for years and years and years.”

The best part of high school soccer has been all the people, Flockhart said. Those people have led to all kinds of experiences. 

“Just being with the team, having fun with them, being able to go on bus rides, go play other teams, the excitement of being able to win together,” Flockhart said of what she enjoys the most. “And even the hardships of losing together. Just the highs and the lows all going through it together as a team.”

Getting to represent Clayton has been an honor for those players. The feeling of playing the game is one they won’t soon forget. 

“I think the special thing about high school was just being able to represent your school,” Mann said. “There's just something special about being able to put on that jersey for school and step out under those lights, play in front of your friends, play in front of the parents. There's nothing better than a home game under the lights playing for your school. Like, it's just been a big, big honor of mine and it’s been so, so special to me.”

What they‘d like to see

While the season is up in the air, seniors aren’t asking for much. Getting back on the field one more time would be enough.

“Honestly, anything we can get back is going to be a blessing,” Mann said. “I think if we do come back, being able to play one conference game — because we hadn't even gotten in the conference yet — that would be amazing.”

Before the season was suspended, Clayton had played just one true home game, the first game of the season against Wilmington Hoggard. The team had looked forward to a season full of games in front of the Comet Crew, of a potential rivalry renewed with Cleveland in conference play and Senior Night.

Now, none of that may be possible. 

The seniors knew the end was coming eventually. But this seemed too soon. This doesn’t allow them to go out under their own terms. And that, among all of this, is hard.

“There's the big picture and then there's just the small things that make it the experience that it is and that we might not get back,” Mann said. “That's it's really hard to know that there's a possibility that we won't get it back.”

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