Jon Claywell’s junior year at Marquette Catholic High was a roller coaster ride he will never forget.
The adversity he faced and life lessons he learned will help shape him far past his prep days with the Explorers. Right now it has helped mature him as a tennis player and evolve his game on the court.
Claywell’s performances for Marquette this season have landed him the 2016 AdVantage News Boys’ Tennis Player of the Year award.
The biggest accomplishment for the burgeoning tennis star was his first trip to the state tournament. It was a huge payoff for a tough season and a ton of grueling work. He was 11-7 overall on the season.
“It was probably one of the best experiences I’ll have for tennis in high school for sure,” Claywell said of state. “The game is played at a different level up there. It’s so much more fast-paced and overall it was just a good learning experience for what I need to become as a player.
“I think qualifying this year and getting a chance to look at the competition up at state will give me a way better chance of winning a couple of rounds next year. This summer I’m playing in tournaments and that will help seeing some of that intense competition. I think I’ll be better next year.”
As hard as he worked to prepare himself physically in the offseason between his sophomore and junior year, it was tragedy within the season that molded his mental focus and makeup.
On April 1 Claywell was riding in the car with teammate and friend Zack Hunter, returning from practice at Principia College, when they were involved in a horrible accident. Hunter had swelling on his brain, sending him into a coma. He later died from complications on April 17.
It was a troubling time for Claywell, who returned to the tennis courts with a heavy heart. Tennis became an escape, as well as a way to honor his fallen friend.
“After the passing of Zack happened, I really tried to focus on my game because it was a really good distraction at the time and I knew that he was watching me,” Claywell said. “It’s just made me a lot more patient and mentally strong.”
His mental strength was tested on a lesser stage while preparing for the Edwardsville Sectional. Claywell was prepared to enter the postseason in doubles, but a late lineup change shifted him to singles at the last minute and he didn’t miss a beat.
Claywell advanced to the semifinals in the singles bracket at the EHS Tennis Center, securing a spot at state. He lost to Edwardsville’s Erik Weiler 6-0, 6-1 in the semis, but recovered to beat Alton’s Silas Chapman 6-2, 6-0 in the third-place match to help his seeding at state. Unfortunately, he went 0-2 at state, but knows the experience will benefit him.
He credits his sectional success to his mental focus, though.
“One thing that really helped me this year at sectionals was I was thinking back to last year when I didn’t have it and wasn’t playing well. After that (2015) match I was like, ‘It’s time to work and get back to it.’ I was just trying to stay as mentally sharp as possible.”
While his mental capacity as a player greatly improved, Claywell said there was a definite physical upgrade between his sophomore and junior seasons.
“It’s my backhand. I’m not afraid to hit out on it anymore,” Claywell said. “My sophomore year I was hesitant on hitting out on the ball and I would slice everything back so my opponent would know exactly what to do, which was hit me backhands and come in. Now I’m more confident to hit out on it. Even if I hit the ball out I’ll just go for the next one. A lot of drills have helped with that.”
He also gives a lot of praise to his father, Jim Claywell, and Marquette head coach Mike Walters, who both have helped with his evolution on the court tremendously.
“My strokes have gotten a lot better and I’m starting to hit out on the ball more. It’s a lot of hard work and my dad, year round, he’s just the best. He’s the best coach I’ve ever had and Mike Walters is a great coach as well,” Claywell said. “He helps me in a lot of close matches. A lot of work has really progressed my game very well I believe.”
In the end, tennis just runs in his blood. The Claywells are definitely a tennis family. He and his dad try and separate it from home life, but sometimes it gets hard.
“We try not to talk about tennis too much at home,” Claywell said. “But around sectional and state time I would go to bed and he would give me the spiel for what I was doing the next day. Then I’d wake up and he’d give me the spiel for what I had to do. Looking back on it, even now, whenever he coaches me I really appreciate it and it’s really humbling for me to be the player I am right now and him say that I’m way past where he was in high school. He had to work hard after high school, that’s what he always tells me. He’s the best and I appreciate all he does for me.
“I really like that he’s my dad and we can just go out and hit if we want. It’s a tennis household.”
Claywell plans on playing a lot through the summer, continuing to his commitment to his physical fitness, and there’s no doubt he’ll continue to grow as a person from his unforgettable junior year.