(Re)Living In The Moment

April 17, 2012

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

Emboldened by having skirted the devil (Georgia Tech parking chieftains) twice on Tuesday as meters ran out before they could be re-stuffed and as well as by juice behind the women’s tennis team’s pending trip to the ACC tournament, I’m changing format.

Advance notice: if you’re patient enough to read to the end, there’s a hell of a reward.

Although we’ve visited similarities between this scuffling season and that of 2010, where the Yellow Jackets finished No. 7 in the conference only to win the tournament by upsetting three teams that had previously beaten them, the topic will be re-tread.

It’s a must, really, because the testimonies of the other two participants who are back for another go – junior Elizabeth Kilborn and senior Viet Ha Ngo – glitter like Olde Gold.

Coach Bryan Shelton and senior Lynn Blau weighed in the other day, offering their faith that history can repeat itself. Kilborn and Ngo make that a unanimous opinion.

So with a little pretext and an occasional drop-in to re-set stage, we’ll roll.

The sixth-seeded Jackets leave today, and tomorrow will play No. 11 Maryland, whom they beat during the regular season. If Tech wins, the Jackets will play No. 3 seed Miami in Friday’s quarterfinals. Two years ago, Tech beat Virginia Tech for the second time that spring, and then met, and upset, Miami.

Off we go:

Kilborn: “A lot of the same losses we had that year we’ve had this year (Clemson, Miami, North Carolina and Virginia). Lynn and Christina and I, it’s nice to have us on a team that has been through a season like this where the expectations were high, we really didn’t meet our expectations.

“We still know there is so much to play for. We can turn all that around. [Teammates] have heard us talk about that experience numerous times, probably more than they want.”

Ngo: “The point that I remember most from two years ago is that we . . . had some bad luck and coming into ACCs we were like, ‘OK, usually we host NCAA [regionals] because we’re usually ranked in the top 16 but this time we were on the edge.’ We were something like 18, 19 or 20. We needed to win to be able to host NCAAs.

“We just said, ‘Let’s just take one match at a time and see where it goes.’ First round, we faced Virginia Tech, and we had beaten them before so that was fine.

“In the next round it was Miami, whom we had lost to, 5-2. Of course we wanted revenge. At the same time, our team was so thin – we had seven people — and a couple of us were injured. We didn’t feel like everybody was perfect, yet at the same time we said, ‘OK, whatever you’ve got, let’s bring it all in.’

Our attitude was incredible. Everyone was pointing toward a common goal. After Miami, we were like, ‘Wow. We can do that.’ “

Clemson, which had beaten Tech 5-2 – in Atlanta, no less – during the regular season was next. Shelton and his staff scouted the Tigers wonderfully.

Kilborn: “There’s never an easy match in the ACCs . . . especially since our conference is so tough. There’s an extra edge. I think the coaches have always done a really good job after matches getting feedback to us so when we play them again, we’ll be ready.”

And so the Jackets were, but . . .

Ngo: “Irina [Falconi, who would go on to win national player-of-the-year honors] rolled her ankle in warmups, but she didn’t show it. She acted like she didn’t even feel it, but later – after the tournament – it was swollen like the size of an elephant foot. That was amazing.

“Every single one of us, we were not thinking about ourselves at all. Everything that we’ve got was there on the court. There’s just no words to describe what we did.”

The Jackets are not quite as thin roster-wise this season, but an injury here and there and a few critical points lost at key junctures leaves them a modest 12-10. Doubt? Forget it. Not with the local knowledge and history in place.

Kilborn: “We had a really long spring break trip, and we’ve had some matches that didn’t go our way. I’ve still always felt . . . especially since we had that run at the ACCs, like there has never been a doubt in my mind about how far this team can go. This is where you want to be peaking, and everybody believes. There’s a lot of tennis left.”

Tech would dispatch Clemson, and next face North Carolina. Shelton and his staff toiled deep into the night, pouring over video and notes from a couple weeks earlier. Then, the Tar Heels won the doubles point and went on to ruin Tech’s Senior Day in Atlanta, 5-2.

That Saturday night, however, the Jackets were too busy de-compressing and tending to ritual to worry yet about scouting reports and such. That would come the next morning. These away-from-the-court moments make this trip extra special.

Kilborn: “Going back to Cary, N.C., and walking into that facility, we all have good feelings. We’ll debrief from the match that day. We normally do takeout from the same Italian restaurant every night . . . and normally a lot of the parents are there . . . even if they have to come from across the ocean.

“We spray paint our shoes yellow; that always happens before the match so [tonight] after practice and dinner we’ll go outside and spray paint our shoes yellow. UNC . . . they were No. 1 in the country.”

Another coat of yellow on the wheels, and then . . .

Ngo: “In the finals against UNC, when we won the doubles point, it was something that switched everything. I remember Irina was playing the very last (and clinching) match, and every single point we still did not know who was going to win. I remember all of us standing. Some were praying, some were yelling.

“Irina just stepped up, and after she won the last point we could not believe it because the team was so fragile, but with a strong mentality and just being in the zone.”

Kilborn: “So much of it comes from our coaching staff. So much comes from preparation.”

Confidence is king, and it comes largely from preparation and an athlete’s belief in and understanding of that preparation. So, here the Jackets are again, albeit with a vibe quite a bit different than they had during much of the regular season.

Ngo: “I think it’s a similar thing . . . because we lost many matches, we have this hunger. We have this hunger to turn everything around. For a comparison, maybe somebody who is starving in Africa is willing to do anything, maybe even kill somebody else, to survive. That’s like the feeling that I think we have now.

“That is something that will allow us to go deeper, through pain. Sometimes you feel like you can’t go any more, and then you think, ‘I have to survive.’ That instinct takes over and it’s like you say to yourself, ‘I don’t care; I can be here five hours, six hours, seven hours if it’s 90, 100 degrees. I might go to the hospital but I don’t care.’

“I feel like that is something that is not shown through words but in action. You can see it in eyes, and how people carry themselves. It’s like, ‘No more; huh-huh!’

“Our goal is to enjoy whatever it is because there are four seniors on the team, and in a month we won’t be playing any more so why not give it our all? It’s different. [During the regular season] you might say, ‘Go Jackets,’ but you don’t feel anything.

“Every year before ACCs we paint our shoes. We paint them bright, bright, bright yellow. And then it feels like, ‘Yes! We are Yellow Jackets.’

“And then the whole team gets together, we look at our shoes, and there is a feeling of pride. We want to show who we are.”

I’m going to a UFC press conference today at noon, and chronicling the event Saturday in Philips Arena. Nothing I see or hear there will grab my heart like listening to Ngo build momentum to the point where she sounded like she was ready to enter the Octagon and wage some mixed martial arts.

She and her teammates will have to settle for Terrapins Thursday in the Cary Tennis Center for starters. Maybe they’ll turn the place into their personal boneyard again. Comments to stingdaily@gmail.com.

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