West Forsyth senior hopes to take his talents from the tennis court and turn them into lessons in the classroom

Published 2:38 pm Monday, March 21, 2022

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By Jay Spivey
For the Clemmons Courier

Not many people can imagine a table-tennis player becoming a reliable tennis player, but that’s exactly what senior Josh Lucero of West Forsyth has become.

Yes, table tennis looks like a miniature version of tennis. However, table tennis uses a paddle, table and a plastic ball. And tennis is played on asphalt, clay, grass or several other synthetic surfaces, along with a racket with strings and a much larger ball with felt on it.

Lucero never played tennis until seventh grade at Meadowlark Middle School. But ever since then, he’s flourished.

“I played a lot of ping-pong with my family,” he said. “We had lots of ping-pong tournaments growing up. We were really a competitive ping-pong family.”

Lucero has played table tennis with his parents, Michael and Christina, along with sisters Alyssa (now 23), who played basketball and softball at West Forsyth, and Bri (now 21), who played golf, basketball and softball at West Forsyth.

“I don’t want to sound braggy, but I was smoking my family,” he said about his prowess playing table tennis. “We had a ping-pong table in our basement. It was just something we enjoyed doing, and just got into it as the weekends went on. I did it for fun, but it turned into a ritual where almost every weekend, we were like, ‘Alright, I’m going to beat you this time.’

“It just got more and more competitive as the weeks went on.”

Lucero said things have changed, but his love for table tennis is still there. He still has friends come to regularly play at the house.

“The sisters are in college now, so they’re not really home as much,” he said. “We’ve been slacking off on our tournaments.”

And he fully admits he had never picked up a tennis racket until he was a teenager.

“I had never played tennis before,” he said. “I was more of a basketball player, so I thought about it and it’s kind of a bigger ping-pong (surface and equipment.’

“So, I just tried it out my seventh-grade year and I ended up making the team, and just got more chances to play more and more. I just fell in love, really.”

Even Lucero’s coach at West Forsyth didn’t know that he came from playing table tennis before playing tennis.

“Some kids coming into high school had taken private lessons. I knew he had not done that,” Coach Sara Cranford said. “I knew he had played in middle school and he did not grow up playing in junior tournaments, or country club lessons, or anything like that. But I didn’t know he was a table tennis player.”

Although the two sports are dissimilar, a player still has to have similar skills.

“When he came out his freshman year, it was apparent he just that natural athletic ability,” Cranford said. “It was apparent he had good hand-eye coordination, he was quick on the court, he was scrappy. I do think probably having coordination and athletic skills translates to both, I think is probably what happened.”

The transition from table tennis to tennis wasn’t a smooth one.

“I thought (the two sports) would be the same, but it’s definitely different,” he said. “Honestly, my seventh-grade year I made the (tennis) team, but I was terrible. I was not good. I was definitely one of the worst people on the team.

Something clicked for him later that season.

“I just played because it was fun,” Lucero said. “I was bad at it, but I was still having lots of fun. It pushed me to keep playing and playing. Then, I ended up the (No.) 1 seed, the best in my eighth grade year. I wouldn’t say I got my skills from ping pong. I’d say it’s what caused me to start growing an interest in tennis.”

Although struggling through his seventh-grade year at Meadowlark, his playing better opponents helped him.

“That first year, I would normally be playing someone better than me because I just wasn’t that good. I wasn’t that experienced,” Lucero said. “Playing that more challenge of an opponent just kind of forced you to get better quickly.”

Tennis is a humbling sport, but Lucero’s upbeat personality didn’t allow him to get down on himself.

“I’ve never been the type to get really upset or frustrated,” he said. “But tennis is definitely one of those sports — you can play a lot and think you’re really good, but then there’s just that one kid who’s been playing longer and is (better). It’s definitely a sport where it takes time to develop your game.”

Once he stepped on the campus at West Forsyth in his freshman year, he decided he was going to play tennis that spring. But he had to wait until February 2019 to start playing on the team because boys tennis is a spring sport.

“I really give all the credit to Ms. Cranford,” he said. “She is an amazing tennis coach. She’s an amazing coach in general, but she’s an amazing tennis coach because I’m pretty sure she played college tennis.

Ms. Cranford just works well with every single player on the team. My game would still be struggling if it weren’t for Ms. Cranford. I give all the credit to her, definitely.”

Cranford played tennis at Parkland before graduating in 1992, then walled on the women’s team at North Carolina, and played there from 1992-95.

“He was a freshman. He was scrawny,” Cranford said. “But he played in our top six that year, probably about 5 or 6 (seed for singles). It was on the end of the lineup, and we were a very average team (finished 5-10 overall and 4-6 in the Central Piedmont 4-A). We’re really good this year. At that time, we were really an average team.”

Lucero immediately stood out on the tennis court.

“He was coachable,” Cranford said. “He wanted to learn and whatever instruction I would give him he would implement and he would try harder. He’s scrappy. I don’t know how else to describe it. He’s got that thing that you really can’t coach where he’s going to run every ball down, he’s going to get it back. He’s mentally tough. Even as a freshman he had a tenacity that I think kids just have or don’t have.”

Lucero even surprised himself during his freshman year.

“I did surprisingly well. I wasn’t a traditional tennis player my freshman year,” Lucero said. “Coach called me Scrappy. I was kind of just an athlete from playing basketball and baseball. I was very athletic. I just used my speed — I used my speed and athleticism to carry me.

“I ended up getting 4-seed (and No. 2 doubles), which was — the highest seed, like 1,2, and 3, were all seniors and juniors. So, I was very happy with it.”

Then, COVID-19 hit his sophomore season in 2020. Because of COVID, the season was halted after just three matches, but Lucero said he improved his backhand and jumped to the No. 3 seed in singles and No. 2 doubles.

“It stunk because I was really looking forward to that season because I remember it stopped right as I was planning on challenging up the 2-seed,” Lucero said. “So, I was looking forward that and then everything just kind of went out of whack.”

After the season was halted, Lucero admits to being locked in with so much uncertainty with the virus.

“I really did not play at all over the offseason,” he said. “I don’t think I got worse, but I didn’t get any better.There was lots of stuff going on.”

Even with school starting back in his junior year, in the fall of 2020, the question was, would there even be a boys tennis season in the spring? There was a season, but it was constricted. However, Lucero and Cranford said that the team was thankful just to have a season last year.

“I never really felt like, ‘Oh, I’m not as good as I was and I didn’t get that much better,'” Lucero said. “I was still confident in my game. It was still lots of fun.”

Last season, the Titans finished 4-6 overall and 4-6 in the conference. They also finished fourth in the conference tournament.

“Everyone really enjoyed last season,” Cranford said. “And he was a captain, and he was a great captain. I think he really did take on that leadership role and took ownership of the team in terms of being a mentor, and encourager of the other guys. I think he really came into his own last season as a leader and as a player.

“And I do think that motivated him to come back for his senior year, and we’re going to be really good and make sure I have a spot in the lineup. And he did. He was playing really good tennis. Still is. He came back at the start of the season playing phenomenal tennis.”

Lucero, who is a captain along with senior Cameron Roth and junior Gavin Lamb, credits much of his success to the early part of this season to getting a membership at Taylor Tennis Center, formerly Vision Tennis Center, in Clemmons, with fellow senior teammate Walter McLaughlin.

Lucero has improved, but so has the rest of the team, which has eight seniors. He’s just recently slipped to No. 5 singles, but he’s still undefeated in singles and doubles, playing No. 1 doubles with Luis Londono. The team is also undefeated. The Titans were 6-0 and 6-0 in the conference at the start of the week.

“Obviously, it’s not fun to drop down, but in a way, it makes me happy that we’re having such a strong team,” he said. “I’m glad we’re first in the conference. I’m more worried about us being undefeated this season than me dropping down in low seeds. But it’s tough. I definitely plan on getting back up there.”

A seed can be deceiving in tennis, especially on good teams.

“Tennis is an individual sport,” Cranford said. “It’s so easy, even on a team for people to forget that you’re on a team. And it’s all about you, and if you win your singles match. I think it’s very easy for people to become very individualistic with it because you’re on a court by yourself.

“And more than any other player I’ve coached, Josh has the team vision. He really does help the younger guys. He motivates everybody. He’s not worried so much about where he is in the lineup as long as the lineup is strong and the team is winning.”

One thing that has markedly improved for Lucero is his net game, making him a better volleyer.

“His freshman year, he played with an older kid, a guy named George Dong,” Cranford said. “I think George was to Josh what Josh is to some of these guys. I think Josh looked up to George, and I think playing doubles with George made Josh’s — I think he wanted to be a better volleyer. He really did develop his doubles game, and by doing that it’s translated to his singles game.”

And by becoming a more well-rounded tennis player, West Forsyth has become a force to be reckoned with in the Central Piedmont 4-A, as well as NCHSAA Class 4-A tennis.

West has already shown marked improvement within the conference against Davie County and Reagan, which both swept West Forsyth last season. It defeated Reagan 7-2 on March 8, and it defeated Davie County 5-4 two days later. It’s scheduled to play both teams again, on March 30 and 31, respectively.

“There’s definitely some pressure there,” Lucero said about trying to stay undefeated. “We go into every match. We always give motivational speeches and huddles. And yeah, we know that no match in our conference is going to be free.

“We’re at the point where we’ve beaten every team in our conference (Glenn doesn’t have a team), so we’re trying to win now. Coach has tried to enforce that because since some of the guys slack off since we’re doing so solid this season. But we’re trying to say on it and make sure we keep that up.”

No one understands that mindset more than Cranford. After all, she teaches AP psychology, social studies and U.S. history at West.

“I don’t know if it’s just the psychology or just I grew up playing sports,” she said. “I grew up playing sports my whole life, and I had great coaches and I don’t know if it’s teaching AP psychology or just — I do enjoy coaching. I do enjoy working with kids. I do enjoy seeing them improve and that helps build up their confidence. I think playing sports my whole life helps me to translate some of that.”

Lucero might follow in Cranford’s footsteps one day. He plans on going to either Appalachian State or UNC Charlotte because he wants to become a middle-school teacher.

“For a really long time I’ve known I wanted to become a teacher,” he said. “I can’t refer to an exact moment where it popped in my mind, ‘OK, this is what I want to become.’ But it’s really all I’ve ever thought about, all I’ve ever envisioned myself becoming.

“But I also think watching Ms. Cranford and other amazing teachers we have at West, everything’s built up to me wanting to be a teacher.”

College is coming for Lucero in the fall. And although he’ll give up competitive tennis when this high school season ends, he still plans on playing club or intramural tennis in college.

“He’s a tremendous person,” Cranford said. “He thinks of others. He has a teacher’s heart. Honestly, when he told me he wanted to be a teacher, I was like, ‘Oh, that doesn’t surprise me.’ He really does like to build others up. He has tremendous athletic ability, but I admire (his leadership) in him almost even more.”

Not bad for a person who never played tennis until he was in middle school.

“I’ll definitely come to the Davie matches in future years just to see how our team is turning out,” Lucero said. “I definitely will stay in touch with Ms. Cranford.”