High school boys tennis: Three share county honors
By Mike London
SALISBURY — Three boys tennis players — Salisbury junior Will Koontz, South Rowan junior Joey Caraccio and East Rowan senior Landon Shuping stepped to the forefront in this shortened season that had no dual team state playoffs.
Koontz and Caraccio were individual state qualifiers in 2A.
Shuping managed to pile up 20-plus singles and doubles wins, even in an abbreviated season, and led a very good team.
They are recognized by the Post as Rowan County Players of the Year.
The Salisbury boys tennis team was a 22-1 machine in the spring of 2019.
With players such as Roarke Burton, Ethan McGee and Sean Archer, the Hornets blew through the Central Carolina Conference and reached the state championship match. They came within an eyelash of rings, losing 5-4 to Clinton. The difference was a handful of points in a third-set tiebreaker at No. 4 singles.
Koontz was on that Salisbury team as a freshman. His role then was to practice, cheer, watch and wait his turn. He worked on his patience as well as his backhand.
“I was the eighth man,” Koontz said.
Koontz got to play in one 2019 match at No. 6 singles. Salisbury was taking on a young South Rowan team that day and Koontz was matched up with a South freshman who had bounced around the lineup, everywhere from No. 3 to No. 6. His name was Joey Caraccio. Koontz prevailed in that first meeting. There would be quite a few more.
Fast forward through the COVID-crushed 2020 season in which Koontz moved up to No. 3 for the Hornets and went 4-0.
There was more improvement and growth by Koontz prior to the 2021 season. Now he was playing No. 1 for the Hornets.
“To go from not playing to playing No. 1 seed in two years, that was a huge adjustment for me,” Koontz said. “But I got used to playing the top guys.”
Mirroring Koontz’s rising skill level, about 11 miles south of Salisbury was Caraccio.
“Just a lot of practice, a lot of hitting with my dad,” Caraccio said. “I got better.”
Frank Caraccio, Joey’s tennis coach as well as his father, swears that the first word Joey ever spoke was “Ball.”
“The kid came out of the womb wanting to play ball,” the coach said. “It’s always been a joy to be his dad. He’s always in a good mood. He never has a bad day.”
At first it was the traditional sports — baseball, football and basketball — that grabbed Joey’s attention.
Getting cut from the eighth-grade baseball team provided a temporary trauma, but the Caraccios turned it into a positive. Frank had started coaching South’s tennis team by then, and he figured he could make a player out of his son.
“He told me I’d like tennis, he started helping me and we had a lot of fun with it,” Joey said. “Then my sophomore year South had a winning season (4-1) and tennis started being more than just fun for me. I started to take it seriously and really started working at it.”
By the spring of 2021, South had blossomed into the second-best tennis team in the Central Carolina Conference behind a strong Ledford squad.
“We solidified the program this year,” Frank Caraccio said.
South beat Salisbury — that’s unheard of in this sport — late in the CCC season. At No. 1 singles, Caraccio defeated Koontz in their first battle since they were freshmen.
“Joey figured me out and knew what to do,” Koontz said.
There would be a rematch in the finals of the CCC tournament. This time Koontz won.
“Joey’s backhand wasn’t as sharp as it was when we played at South,” Koontz said. “But we’re very comparable players. Any time we play, it’s going to be a close match.”
Koontz and Caraccio moved on to regional competition in Salisbury. Koontz and Caraccio advanced through the bracket toward a third meeting.
Koontz’s first match that Saturday lasted three sets and three hours, so he wasn’t in any condition to tackle Caraccio,
“I finished that match in the middle of the day, sun beating down,” Koontz said. “By the time I got to my car, my legs were cramping severely and I had to call the trainer.”
Koontz was determined not to default in the regional championship match. Mustard and pickle juice, a borrowed leg roller and the assistance of the trainer got him through the title match, although Caraccio took the victory.
Now Koontz and Caraccio have split their four career matches.
“Will could hardly walk before the final,” Salisbury coach Milt Griffith said. “He showed a lot of courage to play.”
Koontz obviously wasn’t close to 100 percent, but he made no excuses and congratulated Caraccio on his victory.
Koontz and Caraccio headed to this past weekend’s state individual tournament in Cary after the regional. Both won in the round of 16 and lost in the quarterfinals. There wasn’t much disappointment. Both can say they were in the top eight in 2A. When this season started, neither of them dreamed they’d be playing at the end.
“The state tournament was a fantastic experience for both of them,” Frank Caraccio said. “Amazing facility. Just a very cool tennis community.”
The nicest part of their story is that Koontz and Caraccio have become friends, as well as foes, through tennis. Now they hit together and text each other.
Joey has even gotten to experience the Country Club of Salisbury as Koontz’s guest.
“Joey’s a good guy — fun to talk to and fun to play tennis with,” Koontz said. “We’ve got a nice little rivalry going.”
It’s going to make both of them better as seniors.
Frank Caraccio is the Post’s Rowan County Coach of the Year after guiding South to an 8-2 season.
South accumulated the most points at the regional — South’s No. 2 singles player Noah Steedley also was a regional qualifier — and was declared the champion.
South moves up to 3A next school year, but the coach isn’t losing sleep.
“I’ve coached South in 3A before and I don’t remember any of the teams in that league being as good as Ledford was this season,” he said. “We’ll show up and play who we’re scheduled to play. I’m not stressing about it. I know we’ll be good and I’ll get to coach my son for another year. That’s something I honestly love doing.”
East Rowan lost twice to South Iredell and finished second in the North Piedmont Conference, but the Mustangs, coached by David Andrews, had quite a team.
Shuping was 8-1 in singles, with the only loss coming to NPC Player of the Year Dylan Ewald (South Iredell) in a struggle, Shuping lost 10-8 in a third-set tiebreaker.
“We would usually go as Landon went,” Andrews said.
Shuping’s forte was doubles. He and sophomore partner Ryan Brady were 9-0 during the regular season and won three more matches to win the NPC Tournament.
Shuping and Brady lost in the regional in Concord to a Charlotte Catholic team.
“That was a tough draw and a tough day mentally,” Andrews said, “A lot of rain. Landon and Ryan were scheduled to start at 1 and they played at 5:30.”
Shuping was a basketball-first athlete throughout his time at East, but he made great progress in tennis.
His mother taught him the game. He played No. 5 and 6 as a freshman, but moved up to No. 2 his sophomore year. He was playing No. 1 when COVID wiped out the 2020 season, but then he made the most of his last year.
“Landon was a great leader,” Andrews said. “I didn’t have to give big pregame speeches — Landon would get the guys together and handle it. He was the first to get there and the last to leave. Everything from playing hard to cleaning up the court, he always set an example for our younger guys.”
Shuping is headed to East Carolina.
He traveled there several times to watch his brother, Logan, play golf for the Pirates, and fell in love with the school.
His career path choice will be physical therapy or high school math teacher.
East — Landon Shuping*, Gavin McDaniel, Jaden Collins, Ryan Brady, Drew Roane
South — Joey Caraccio*, Noah Steedley, Richard Gould, Grayson Steedley
Salisbury — Will Koontz*, Colin Donaldson, Bennett Clark
Carson — Andrew Beaver, Parker Steele, Ricky Musselwhite
North — Daniel Montes Medrano
West — Sam Gulledge