#TGW: Runnin' Down a Dream

Jan. 24, 2018

By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word –

THE FLATS — Paige Hourigan has been there and done while Victoria Flores has never played in a true collegiate dual tennis match, yet the Georgia Tech senior and her freshman teammate are similarly excited about this weekend’s ITA Kick-Off Weekend, and not just because they’ll play the season’s first duals at home.

When the No. 7-ranked Yellow Jackets take on the University of South Florida Saturday morning in the Ken Byers Tennis Complex, they’ll kickoff off their home stretch with big aspirations. Tech wants to surpass last season, when the Jackets narrowly missed winning the ACC title, and advanced to the NCAA’s Sweet 16.

They think they’re better this season, and now they can start proving it.

“We want to make it to Final Four and win ACCs,” said Hourigan, the senior from New Zealand. “That’s our goal for the team, I guess . . . “

Flores, the precocious freshman from Fort Dodge, Iowa, is not guessing. She said the Jackets, “are ring chasing.”

That’s pretty big talk, but the Jackets look to have the muscle to back it up.

Hourigan, fellow senior Johnnise Renaud, freshman Ida Jarlskog and sophomore Nami Otsuka have all been ranked individually by the ITA, although there have been no rankings issued for a few months.

For all the individual matches played last fall and even a couple weeks ago in the Michigan Invitational, Saturday morning will be the first time this edition of Jackets will compete in an absolute dual-meet format, which is how the ACC and NCAA titles are contested.

Tech will take on the Bulls at 11 a.m. Saturday with three doubles matches – whomever wins at least two of those matches will earn a point for their team – and six singles matches, each worth a point toward the team score.

It’s different, even from the format at Michigan and in the final competition of the fall, the Tiger Fall Classic at LSU. In those three-day tournaments, Tech played five singles matches each day in addition to two doubles matches. Their opponents weren’t even the same in singles each day as in doubles.

So, this weekend, when the Jackets seek to beat the Bulls and on Sunday play the winner of Denver/Dartmouth for a berth in the ITA National Team Indoors Feb. 9-11 at the University of Wisconsin, sets Tech in the starting blocks.

This will be the first time around the dual block for Flores and Jarlskog, and head coach Rodney Harmon’s feeling good about their prospects and those of his team, which includes sophomores Kenya Jones and Nadia Gizdova.

“They’re ready to go,” he said of the freshmen. “They came here seasoned, but it’s a different animal when you play only for yourself. Ida has played for her country, for Sweden, in Summer Cup and Fed Cup, but still you don’t deal with the crowds that we deal with. That can be kind of rough.”

Many things change when the dual season dawns.

Hourigan — who was 6-2 in the preseason with losses last fall to then-No. 15 Anna Dinilana of Florida and then-No. 2 Gabriela Tabala of Texas Tech before beating Tabala, 6-3, 7-6 (3), a couple weeks ago in Michigan – loves it.

“When you’re not just playing for you, and you’re playing a dual match, I feel like you’re doing it for the person next to you,” she explained. “Sometimes, in invitationals, your teammate is not even playing on the court next to you. I just feel like it makes you say, ‘I’m doing it for my team.’”

There will be plenty of big moments this spring, when more than anything, the Jackets want another shot at the ACC title and North Carolina.

They won their first 14 conference matches last spring, winning at North Carolina to snap the Tar Heels’ streaks of 36 consecutive ACC dual match wins and 50 straight home victories, but fell 4-3 to UNC in the ACC championship match.

Tech will visit No. 5 North Carolina March 24.

They wanted and got another shot last season at Duke, which beat the Jackets in Durham last spring to snap Tech’s shot at a perfect conference season; the Jackets were 13-0 in the ACC going into that one. Tech beat the Blue Devils in the ACC semifinals. Ninth-ranked Duke will visit Tech April 6.

There will also be matches Feb. 23 against No. 4 Georgia, whom the Jackets beat last season, No. 19 Miami on March 14, and at No. 8 Texas Tech March 18.

Ask Harmon, who has deep roots working in the United States Tennis Association, which is all about development, and nothing is changing.

“No, we’re always focused on development, growth and development,” the coach said. “It’s an opportunity to see where you are, assess how you’re doing and what things you need to continue to work on . . .

“Each player knows what they’re working on. After each match, it’s not necessarily whether you won or lost, but did you do the things we talked about beforehand? How well did you do them? How well did you adjust? How well did you handle adversity? How well did you move your feet?”

Yet the bottom line for players — and maybe Harmon even as he suggests otherwise perhaps to deflect pressure – is that it all really starts Saturday.

“One hundred percent,” Hourigan said. “This is an opportunity to play really well, and get our name out there and show that we’re a championship team this year. It’s kind of the beginning . . . It’s just exciting that the season is coming up.”

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