CLAYTON -- When Clayton High’s Gary Clark throws down one of his explosive dunks, the crowd always reacts – raucous cheers and high-fives from the Comets’ fans at home and silence from opponents on the road.
When the junior soars for an alley-oop pass on the break or grabs a rebound above the rim and jams it through, there also is an on-court impact.
Clark’s dunks elevate his team, and often they have led to offensive spurts as the Comets have won 14 of their first 15 games this season.
“We kind of feed off of it,” Clark said of his dunks. “I kind of go, ‘Let’s go boys, come on, time to turn it up.’
“When I get a dunk, it’s like my adrenalin really gets going. I play hard (all the time), but after a dunk, it’s like, ‘All right, come on.’ ”
The Comets, ranked second in the N&O area poll, will meet defending Greater Neuse River 4A champion Garner (11-2 and ranked third) twice this week, first Wednesday in a rescheduled game, then again Friday. It’s a stretch that many think will determine the league’s regular-season champion.
A Clark dunk here or there could change the scope of either of those games, as they often have for Clayton this season.
When Clark raises the intensity, the Comets follow suit. A few examples:
• Dec. 5 against Cleveland, the Comets were ahead 10-6 when Devon Terry and Clark connected for dunks on back-to-back possessions to start a 9-0 run to end the first quarter. Clayton went on to win 68-30.
• Dec. 11 against Wilson Hunt, Clark dunked on an assist from Anthony Gaskins and drew a foul for a three-point play. Clayton, ahead 22-20 before the play, ended the half on a 5-1 spurt and continued the run to start the second half to take a 33-21 lead.
• Jan. 4 against Smithfield-Selma, Clark went on a solo tear after a second half-opening dunk, scoring the first 14 points of the half after being limited to four free throws during the first half. The Comets won 78-45.
• Jan. 11 against West Johnston, the Comets fell behind 12-0. Clark took an alley-oop pass and was bumped on the way up. He had enough athletic ability to bank in a shot and convert the three-point play. The Comets closed the quarter with an 11-2 run in just over two minutes. Clark dunked on a follow shot during the third quarter when the Comets were ahead 43-37 and they closed with a 17-5 run to win 60-42.
Clark, a 6-foot-8 Division I prospect who has scholarship offers from ACC member Clemson and numerous other schools, is averaging 23 points and 15 rebounds per game. He is collecting about three dunks per game, and has at least one in every game this season.
Coach Denny Medlin looks at Clark’s dunks as a sign that his team is executing at a high level. And the result often is that the energy level gets a boost.
“They can look at it as a dunk picks them up,” Medlin said. “But the way I look at it, when he’s getting dunks that means he’s playing hard and when he’s playing hard everybody feeds off that.
“It’s an intensity issue. It means we are executing.”
Gaskins, a senior guard who is averaging 17 points and about four assists, makes sure before every game to tell his big man to be alert.
“Before the game we’ll be talking and I tell him, ‘I’m going to try and get you at least two alley-oop dunks tonight.’ I know he’s going to catch it no matter where I throw it,” Gaskins said.
“When he goes past me (on the break) I can tell right then if he is going to go for the alley-oop or not.”
When Clark grabs the pass and brings the crowd to its feet, Gaskins said his teammates respond as well.
“When he dunks, it makes the whole team want to play extra hard because we know our fans are going to be behind us.
“I know when he’s playing hard and getting dunks, we have to help.”
Medlin said the Comets’ defense also can start a spurt, with Clark often getting a dunk along the way.
“It’s not only Gary dunking,” Medlin said. “When Anthony (Gaskins) gets a steal, when we trap and force a turnover, everybody’s energy picks up and when we are doing that kind of stuff, Gary tends to get more dunks.
“Not everybody has his length and athleticism. It’s exciting when he goes up for a dunk.”
The Comets have only one set play designed to get Clark a dunk, Medlin said. Almost all of the dunks are in transition or after an offensive rebound.
Regardless, it’s a big part of the Comets’ success – a crowd pleaser, a team energizer.
“We talk about it after games,” Clark said of the crowd reaction. “We watch it on film, how crazy everybody goes. We can see them. But we try to stay focused on the game.”
And that focus and extra energy often results in good things for the Comets.