#TGW: ACC Championship Preview

By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word

   There is no making sense of brackets, rankings or locations, so when Georgia Tech’s fourth-ranked women’s tennis team takes the court Friday in the ACC Tournament, wherever the Yellow Jackets play, they’ll carry forward very little from prior experience.

The goal will be to go to the baseline, minimize gambles and keep balls in play.

Tech could be outdoors at the Cary (N.C.) Tennis Center, where the tournament is staged, or moved indoors by weather to the nearby University of North Carolina, Duke or NC State.

The Jackets (20-4, 12-2 ACC) have a great preference for playing outdoors, yet they beat No. 2 North Carolina indoors at the UNC facility earlier this season. That was the second loss the Tar Heels have suffered in conference play in half a decade. Tech applied the first last year, also in Chapel Hill.

Perhaps none of that will matter Friday when the No. 4 Jackets play No. 27 Syracuse (18-6, 8-6), who beat Tech 4-3 last month in a club near the Syracuse campus.

The Jackets are ranked No. 4 nationally despite having beaten both No. 2 North Carolina and No. 3 Duke, the No. 3 and No. 1 seeds, respectively, in the ACCs.

The Orange beat Tech by capturing the doubles point when Miranda Ramirez and Gabriela Knutson topped the nation’s now-No. 1-ranked team of Tech’s Paige Hourigan and Kenya Jones 6-2 to capture the doubles point.
Then, Knutson held off Hourigan in singles play to clinch the match.

And Tech head coach Rodney Harmon doesn’t care much about any of that.

He wants the Jackets to just keep beating the drum like a metronome.

“Our goals are pretty long, and they’ve been the same all year; to try to get better,” Harmon said before the Jackets left town on Thursday. “Try to play very disciplined tennis because that’s when we play well – that’s the baseline game of what we do.

“Make adjustments from there. You’ve just got to play your baseline game, and make an adjustment here or there. We worry less about the opponent and more about what we need to do.”

The Jackets are well on their way back to the glory days of former coach Bryan Shelton, who led the team to three straight ACC titles and an NCAA championship — Tech’s only title in any sport — in 2007.

But of course there is no such thing as a lock.

Last year, they went 13-1, winning at North Carolina to end the Heels’ streaks of 50 straight home wins and 36 consecutive ACC victories. Then, UNC beat Tech 4-3 in the ACC championship match when Hourigan was on the wrong end of multiple line calls.

Tech later fell to Oklahoma State in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.

And they don’t care about any of that.

But they would certainly rather play outdoors as opposed to indoors, where they suffered three of their four losses, including at Syracuse.

“I’d rather stay outside just because this season we’ve been in and out because Mother Nature is just not having it with us this year. I prefer outside,” said sophomore Kenya Jones, who is 23-6 and ranked No. 82 nationally.

“Outside, it’s a little harder to put the ball away. You really have to work and fight for every point.”

The Jackets are crafted to play outdoors.

They’re hot, having won six straight matches. Freshman Ida Jarlskog (21-8) has won six straight matches. Fellow freshman Victoria Flores has rallied hard from a slow start to win her past five matches. Senior Johnnise Renaud has also won five straight.

Matches last longer outdoors, and Harmon coaches for them because that’s where the NCAA championship is contested. The indoor championship, where Tech lost earlier in the spring to No. 11 Pepperdine, is not an official NCAA championship.

“If we play outdoors, it’s going to be better than playing indoors on slippery courts,” he said. “We prefer to play outside. We’re definitely an outdoor team, just the way we’re structured and the way I coach. Play rallies, be consistent, move well, break down both sides of the court and make a lot of returns.”

It’s not like Tech is going into this without pedigree.

The Jackets have beaten No. 2 North Carolina, No. 3 Duke, No. 8 Georgia, No. 9 Florida, No. 17 Florida State and half a dozen more ranked teams. There losses have been to No. 11 Pepperdine, No. 12 Northwestern, No. 15 Miami and No. 27 Syracuse — all indoors.

If the Jackets have to play indoors, they’ll deal with it. That’s where they beat North Carolina last month. As Harmon said, “We’ve proven we can play well when we have the right mindset indoors.”

Without thinking about it, the first goal will be to reverse what happened last month in Syracuse, on the weird indoor courts at a local golf and tennis club.

The doubles point will be, as always, important.

Jones and Hourigan are ranked No. 1 nationally, and the Syracuse tandem of Knutson and Ramirez are No. 4.
In singles, Hourigan is No. 13 and Knutson is No. 4.

Nothing can be taken for granted. What has happened before is apparently irrelevant.

“I’d say it doesn’t matter,” Jones said. “Last year, we played UNC [and won] and then we played them in the finals and lost.”

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