#TGW: Making The Difference

April 23, 2014

By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word

As the Yellow Jackets passed Wednesday practicing under a glorious sun before today’s debut in the ACC Tournament in Cary, N.C., it was easy to think back to Georgia Tech’s rousing win last weekend over No. 1 Duke, and beyond.

The Jackets (12-8, 9-5 ACC) have labored at times this spring with a young squad. That made beating the Blue Devils in the regular season finale all the more grand.

This does not look any more like a team of pieces, but rather a mesh of players and coaches into a singular, cohesive machine.

As moments in the sun go, Hemingway could not have scripted it better.

Saturday was senior day at Tech, and the No. 20 Jackets have but one senior. So, if you don’t already know, guess who clinched a win over the nation’s top-ranked team before a hardy crowd fueled by the men’s team in full throat?

You guessed it; Muriel Wacker, the elder Jacket, finished off Duke with a 2-6, 6-3, 6-2 win over Rachel Kahan.

It was fine work by any standard, and that much more poignant considering Wacker’s path from Zurich, Switzerland, to The Flats. She was for a long time largely a doubles specialist. Her track record shows six singles matches played as a freshman, and two as a sophomore.

Yet she had no help with Kahan, at least not on the court. The lefty was out there alone, her growth as a tennis player in evidence like a flower in spring bloom.

The energy in the Ken Byers Tennis Center was palpable as weather had forced everyone indoors, and head coach Rodney Harmon, assistant Alison Silverio and even former coach Bryan Shelton have invested countless practice hours.

The soft-spoken Wacker did the work, though, and her racquet did the talking.

She reported, sheepishly, that her win was, “probably” the highlight of her Tech career on a personal level. Shelton, who recruited Wacker, chimed in afterward. He is now the men’s coach at Florida.

“He texted me congratulations, and said he is very proud of me. It’s very nice to hear from him,” she said. “I definitely think we’re peaking at the right time. There are only six people on the team so everyone is playing.

“It can be tough at times. We talk about fighting for every ball. We’re excited about going to ACCs.”

As the Jackets had a bye Wednesday as the No. 6 seed while awaiting the winner of an NC State-Virginia Tech match, how much more enjoyable could it be than to reflect on Wacker authoring such a moment in her final home match?

“Especially someone who has given so much to the program,” said head coach Rodney Harmon. “It’s a culmination of all the hard work. She’s a phenomenal student, with a 3.998 GPA, just one B her entire time in industrial engineering.

“She’s a tremendous student and when she comes to the court, she comes ready to work. Not a day has come where I could say, ‘Muriel is having a bad day.’ She is always trying to get better.”

The Jackets have all worked hard. It has been difficult.

They are Wacker, sophomores Kendal Woodard, Megan Kurey and Natasha Prokhnevska and freshmen Rasheeda McAdoo and Alexa Anton-Ohlmeyer.

All came to Tech highly recommended. There’s more to the sport than junior rankings, however, and bumps bubbled up in the Jackets’ road to here.

March was brutal, like most drives through the ACC. The conference is a rigid tennis gauntlet.

Duke (21-3, 11-3), for example, was ranked No. 1 nationally a week ago but with that loss to the Jackets fell to fifth place in the ACC behind North Carolina (23-4, 12-2), Miami (18-4, 12-2), Virginia (18-5, 12-2) and Clemson (20-5, 12-2).

Woodward and Kurey have been one of the nation’s top doubles teams for a year now, but Woodard’s ascension to the No. 1 singles spot has been particularly tough, where Kurey’s climb to No. 2 has been smoother.

McAdoo and Anton-Ohlmeyer came to Tech with great acclaim, but the process of integrating them into a team format has not always been easy.

After a 5-2 spring start in which the losses were to Vanderbilt (now ranked No. 10) and Georgia (No. 2), the Jackets went 3-4 in March in ACC matches. Losses at Boston College (No. 51) and Miami (by a 7-0 score) were particularly galling.

“We had a very bad March, but we had a very good April. It started when we played Virginia,” Harmon said. “Even though we lost, it looked like we were starting to play like we were capable. Then we beat Virginia Tech pretty convincingly. You saw some of the improvement in some players.

“You saw some of the promise that we knew we had but couldn’t harness. What happened is we would have two people play really well, but others not. We could not get all six people playing well at the same time. By and large we couldn’t get everybody playing well at the same time.”

The Jackets began settling into their roles, into the different rhythms that a college team sport requires.

“Our sophomores had done so well as freshmen that it created very high expectations for our freshmen,” Harmon explained. “Rasheeda got more comfortable, and Alexa . . . she arrived with great skills, but we’ve expanded her game and she’s had to grow into that.”

McAdoo went 2-7 from mid-February to late March, yet has a record of 6-1 at No. 4 singles since with five straight wins. She and Anton-Ohlmeyer have also teamed to win four consecutive doubles matches.

Anton-Ohlmeyer has gone 5-2 in the same span at No. 6 singles.

Woodward, who was named first-team All ACC, and Kurey, who was named second-team, are 25-9 in doubles, and 8-3 in conference play.

Anton-Ohlmayer (8-2 in ACC action at No. 3 doubles) and Prokhnevska –Wacker  have all improved to where Harmon and the Jackets enter each match legitimately hopeful of capturing the all-important doubles point, as they did against Duke with wins from Woodard-Kurey and McAdoo-Anton-Ohlmeyer.

No player sports a more impressive mark than Wacker, who is 12-2 in ACC matches, and 10-3 overall in her present No. 5 singles spot.

She has won eight of her past 10 singles matches.

“She obviously has an attacking game. What was an issue is she couldn’t hit her forehand. It was pretty much a slice or had nothing on it,” Harmon said. “We’ve worked hard on that, and she just listened and worked on it. It’s become a weapon that helps her set up and get to the net.

“She has very good hands, and long arms for a girl. She’s like an octopus at the net and covers space that you didn’t think she could cover. If a match is on the line, she’s definitely the one you want. She’s so smart she’s going to find a way. ”

With the match on the line against Duke, Wacker knew what she had to do for her team. With members of the men’s squad leading the way with thunderous vocal support, Tech’s lone senior was for a change the last one playing. She rallied.

“I normally finish my matches pretty quickly. I knew pretty early because I saw that Megan and Rasheeda were winning (to force a 3-3 tie in the team score),” she said. “Since I knew it pretty early I was pretty calm.

“It was awesome because all the guys’ team came to watch and we had a lot of alumni as well. It made a big difference.”

Then, Wacker made the difference.

“Now,” Harmon said, “we see that we can play with the top teams.”

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