Noel Clayton has been coaching tennis at Owensboro Catholic High School for the past two decades, and he has no inclination to give up the netter reigns anytime soon.
“I feel a little bit like former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Walt Alston,” Clayton joked, in reference to a man who signed 23 consecutive one-year contracts. “I feel like mine’s a one-year obligation each year.
“I still like what I do. Who knows? For now, though, I really enjoy what I’m doing.”
Clayton, 61, who began as an assistant to his wife, Brenda, 20 years ago, has built a huge legacy at Catholic. He’s had a hand in numerous girls’ championships and his boys’ teams had a stretch of 10 consecutive regional titles between 2009-18.
How has he done it?
“We’ve had some really good athletes through the years — ridiculously good athletes in some cases,” Clayton said. “We’ve got 15 girls right now who are really good athletes.
“So, you have to have talent, and you also have to develop talent through the years that they play. It’s been fun and rewarding to watch players develop over time.”
And, make no mistake, it’s a family affair when it comes to tennis at Owensboro Catholic, where names such as Buckman, Hayden and Danzer, among others, have become commonplace.
“I’ve had a lot of good kids, a lot of good families to work with, no doubt about that,” Clayton said. “We work hard at tennis, but we also have a lot of fun.”
And, fun is one of the centerpieces of Clayton’s coaching philosophy.
“Everyone underestimates fun,” Clayton said, “so we try to incorporate as much fun as we can over here. You want playing the sport to be fun for the players. Our girls and our boys practice together and I think that makes a big contribution to to the camaraderie we have at Catholic High. We’re a pretty tight-knit group.”
Moreover, the Aces and Lady Aces spend plenty of time on the court throughout the spring.
“We practice a lot and we play a lot of matches,” Clayton said. “There’s lots of repetition involved — when you hit a lot of tennis balls, good things happen.
“We also play a pretty tough schedule on the weekends, in particular, and I think our players appreciate that.”
Clayton was a three-sport athlete at Tell City (Ind.) High School, where he played tennis, basketball and baseball for the Marksmen. He was good enough on the mound to earn a baseball scholarship at Kentucky Wesleyan College.
Brenda, a year behind him at Tell City, was his high school sweetheart and an accomplished tennis player in her own right, earning a scholarship to the University of Evansville. The two were married in 1982.
Ultimately, both of their sons — Matthew and Kyle — played at Catholic and earned All-State honors. Matthew teamed with Jody Mitchell to win the KHSAA state doubles championship in 2002. Both went on to highly successful careers at Transylvania, where their Pioneers teams won eight conference championships.
Brenda and Noel began coaching at Catholic in the early 2000s, producing a wealth of talent, including a pair of three-time All-Staters — Tim Barnoud and Caleb Buckman.
And, Catholic continues to be a major force on the western Kentucky high school tennis scene.
“We’ve had a lot of fun with it through the years,” Clayton said. “It’s been a lot of work, but it’s also been a lot of fun.”