High school tennis: Rare heights for South

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 22, 2021

By Mike London

LANDIS — South Rowan and tennis don’t often appear in the same sentence, but these are unusual times.

South has virtually no tennis tradition —  girls or boys.

The Raider girls made the state dual team playoffs once. That was in 1996. They lost in the first round.

The South boys also made the dual team state playoffs once. That was in 2005. They lost in the first round.

One of the sadder things about this COVID-plagued school year is that South’s boys tennis team would’ve qualified for the dual team state playoffs had they not been canceled. South was the second-best team in the 10-team 2A Central Carolina Conference.

The Raiders (8-2, 7-2) showed how far they’ve come in their last league outings, rolling 7-2 against the Central Davidson squad that tied them for second place and winning against Salisbury 8-1 on Monday.

Salisbury won every CCC boys tennis championship from 2010-19. Salisbury is down quite a bit from its usual level, but it was still a meaningful win for South, which lost 9-0 and 8-1 to the Hornets in 2019. There were two 9-0 Salisbury wipeouts of the Raiders in 2018.

“The kids were amped about playing Salisbury because Salisbury is always very good and we had never won against them,” South coach Frank Caraccio said. “We won handily, but the kids were still excited about it and I was excited for them. It was an important match for us as far as solidifying second place in the conference. Usually we talk about getting better in a match, but this time we really wanted to win.”

Caraccio, who is now in his fifth season, is a native of cold, snowy Syracuse, N.Y.

When he was 21 he was invited to a Thanksgiving dinner in the Carolinas. It was 70 degrees, a favorable temperature reading that convinced him it was time to move to the South.

He lived in Chapel Hill for a time before relocating to China Grove.

Caraccio grew up playing tennis. When South was struggling mightily in 2017  and was seeking a tennis coach, Caraccio volunteered his services. He had afternoons free and he liked the sport, so he figured why not?

His debut was a pretty disastrous 1-15 season, but in the spring of 2018, the school year the Raiders moved down from 3A to 2A, South improved to 6-12 under Caraccio’s guidance.

“I’m a low-stress guy,” Caraccio said. “I try to keep tennis fun. We did a lot of drills, just trying to improve our skills. The focus was on getting better, not necessarily on the results we were getting. As long as you’re getting better, results will eventually take care of themselves.”

In 2019, the Raiders improved to 8-10 and introduced a freshman group that included Joey Caraccio, one of Frank’s sons, as well as Noah Steedley, Richard Gould and Noah King. South was still losing by a landslide to the strong teams — Salisbury, Ledford, West Davidson — but it was starting to beat the average ones.

South probably would have made a splash in the spring of 2020. The Raiders were 4-1 and had won against East Rowan and West Rowan when COVID halted that season. The senior leaders on that South team were Austin Peacock and Matthew Correll, who had been with Coach Caraccio from the beginning. They basically lost their senior seasons, but their impact is still being felt every time the program wins.

“We’ve got good kids, they’ve worked hard on their games, and they’ve gradually gotten better,” Caraccio said. “We don’t have any seniors. Most of our guys are juniors now, and some younger guys are coming along.”

Freshman Grayson Steedley, Noah’s younger brother, has made an impact as a No. 4 singles and No. 2 doubles player. Sophomore Cameron Driver and Freshman Carston Carey also have been regulars in the lineup.

The Steedleys are sons of Caleb Steedley, a former South tennis standout, and Karla Steedley, a competitive distance runner.

Joey Caraccio, who plays No. 1 and won against Salisbury’s Will Koontz on Monday, has become one of the county’s best players. He’s 9-1 in singles — the loss was to undefeated Ledford senior Chris Hartzell.  Caraccio and Noah Steedley have been consistent winners at No. 1 doubles.

South has enjoyed breakthrough victories against West Davidson and Central Davidson this season, as well as Salisbury.

The Raiders lost to undefeated Ledford 7-2.  The other setback was 5-4 to Oak Grove, a match that still has Coach Caraccio shaking his head.

“We won the top four singles matches pretty easily, but we just couldn’t get a doubles win against Oak Grove,” he said. “We really should have only one loss.”

South closes the regular season Friday with a non-conference matchup with A.L. Brown.

While the Raiders don’t have dual team state playoffs to look forward to, there’s still tennis ahead.

Individual singles and doubles champions will be crowned at the regional and state levels.

Seven singles players and seven doubles teams will advance from the CCC tournament in Lexington to the 2A Midwest Regional Tournament that will be hosted by Salisbury.

“We’re looking foward to the tournament,” Caraccio said. “We’ve got a good team now, but next year should be our best one.”

South will return to the 3A ranks next school year.