BY BRENDAN FEENEY

sports@starbeacon.com

SAYBROOK TOWNSHIP — As he saw the tennis ball fly into the net at the end of the second set, Lakeside’s Ryan McClure could not hold back his emotions.

“Let’s go!” he screamed.

McClure had just fought back from a match-point deficit in the semifinals against St. John’s Dave DiSalvatore during the Ashtabula County boys tennis tournament at the end of June at St. John School. He carried his momentum to a third-set win and eventually the county championship, completing a comeback story that began roughly 15 months before his match with DiSalvatore ever started.

Preparing for his junior season in 2019 after strong showings in his first two years that led to a pair of first-team all-county and all-conference selections and a first-doubles county tournament title, McClure had his eyes set on the county tournament and the county player of the year titles. 

He went to Pine Lake Tennis Club in Perry to train with 2019 St. John graduate Cayleb Haynes.

“It was about a week into the season, so I only had about four practices,” McClure said. “I was definitely trying to win county player of the year. I was definitely trying to make it out of our sectional. I just wanted to go out there, have a solid season and go as far as I could in sectionals and districts and hopefully win the county tournament.”

During that training session with Haynes, McClure tore his ACL, LCL and meniscus. His season was over before it ever started — and not for the last time.

McClure underwent surgery on April 1 and said he “was able to walk with crutches, putting 25 percent weight on my right leg for six weeks.”

After those six weeks concluded, he wore a brace for eight-and-a-half months. Instead of feeling sorry for himself, McClure used that time to improve his game.

“It really gave me an opportunity to work on parts of my game that I wasn’t so confident in, like my volleys and my mental strategies,” he said. “So I really feel like this injury was a blessing in disguise and without it I wouldn’t be who I am today.”

McClure, who also played basketball for the Dragons in his first three years, sat out the winter sports season to prepare for one more season of high school tennis — a season that was supposed to be his chance to erase the previous heartbreak.

Then, deja vu hit when the COVID-19 pandemic wiped away his opportunity to rewrite his own story.

“We were in the middle of practice and our athletic director, Jason Baxter, came up and told us that most likely there was not going to be a season and I was just devastated,” McClure said. “I had no words. I couldn’t play. 

“I broke down and I went to my car and I started crying because I knew that I put in all this work just for it to be taken away.”

McClure received his opportunity when St. John coach Todd Nassief organized a new county boys tournament in June.

McClure waltzed to the semifinals where he ran into DiSalvatore. After staving off elimination in the second set, he used a number of strong serves to get to the final.

DiSalvatore called the semifinal mentally and physically exhausting and credited McClure for the win.

“He doesn’t really have any flaws,” DiSalvatore said.

“You can’t keep hitting to his backhand. You can’t keep hitting to his forehand. His serve’s deadly, it has a great kick to it. He’s all-around great and out here everyday grinding.”

McClure topped Conneaut’s JT Vendetti 6-1, 6-3 in the final.

“Ryan plays his heart out no matter who he’s playing,” Vendetti said. “Playing against one of your friends is always a pleasure because we were looking forward to hopefully being able to go at each other. He’s an amazing player and I hope that he goes on to do great things in college.”

McClure said he plans to stay home for a year “due to COVID reasons,” then will continue his tennis career at Edinboro when everything clears up and he and his parents both feel comfortable enough.

He said his first-year goal is to make the starting roster and improve his game.

“I’m really trying to be a good collegiate player,” he said.

He also plans to study physical therapy.

When he looks back at his time at Lakeside, McClure won’t be able to ignore the two years he lost, but he will also always remember ending his career with a county title.

“It was an absolute pleasure to be out here,” he said on the day of the tournament. “I really missed this atmosphere and I’m really glad I got to have it one more time.”

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