April 24, 2015
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
It hasn’t quite gotten to the point of Norm when he entered Cheers, but Georgia Tech men’s tennis coach Kenny Thorne is becoming quite the familiar face at the Olive Garden in Cary, N.C.
It’s not that he can’t resist their chicken carbonara or just really likes stocking up on all the breadsticks and salad you can eat. It’s simply a case of when things are going right, you don’t mess with it.
“We are going to Olive Garden every night and I fear we’re going there again tonight,” Thorne said, with a laugh. “I’m not real excited about that but the guys feel good about it that’s what we’re doing.”
Honestly, neither Thorne nor any of the players believes that Olive Garden is responsible for the 10-seeded Jackets (14-11) posting back-to-back ACC Tournament wins over seventh-seeded Notre Dame, 4-0, in Thursday’s Tournament opener, then Friday’s 4-3 win over 14th-ranked Virginia Tech, the tourney’s second seed, Tech’s third straight win — all over ranked teams.
Next up is third-seeded Wake Forest (21-6), the nation’s 11th-ranked team, beginning at 10 a.m. Saturday.
Thorne admitted this run caught him by surprise, especially after a tough finish to the season, during which the team lost its last five matches and seven of its last eight.
“You know the story of Lazarus in the Bible, when he was dead and he came back to life? Well, that’s basically the only way to explain this team,” he said. “We were dead in the water going into the Duke match and we’re back alive. It’s been pretty incredible.
“I’d love to pretend, `Yes, I know exactly what I was doing.’ I don’t want to claim that at all,” he added. “We just try to do the right thing. Keep teaching the right things and keep putting belief in guys. If you do the right thing enough times you have a shot to turn things around. But all the credit goes to the guys. It’s not anything we’ve done or said. It’s the guys taking ownership of the team. They get all the credit.”
Receiving a lot of the credit is sophomore Carlos Benito. Benito, who started the season at No. 6 singles has worked his way up to No. 2 — he’s also playing No. 1 doubles with fellow Spaniard Eduardo Segura. He has come up especially big during the streak, winning the deciding games of both the wins over No. 8 Duke and Friday’s match against the Hokies. Both came over nationally ranked opponents — Duke’s Raphael Hemmeier, who was 59th, and Virginia Tech’s Amerigo Contini, who was 64th.
“The win today was huge. It meant a lot to us,” said Benito, who rallied from 2-4 in the third set to pull out a 7-5 victory over Contini. “It gave us the opportunity to qualify for the NCAAs, May 8, 9 and 10. So it was huge.”
After winning the first set, Benito led 4-0 in the second-set tiebreaker before Contini roared back to take the next seven points, then four of the first six games in the deciding set.
Typical of Benito, he stayed under control and forged a comeback of his own. He broke Contini at 4-4 then served out the match, nailing a pair of aces in what would be the final game.
“He has really come through under pressure and he’s just rising to the occasion and enjoying the moment,” said Thorne. “That’s what we’ve been talking about. Being the last match on the court you just have to enjoy the moment and play to win. You can’t fear losing. You have to go after it. Today was a tough one. He got down 4-2 in the third but was never out of the fight. He just stayed in there and kept at it, kept believing and came back strong. He did a great job today.
“Carlos is kind of low-key so I think some of the pressure moments actually get him up to where we need him,” Thorne added, with a laugh. “So he can kind of thrive in those situations. It gets him up and gets him a little more excited. He’s just improved throughout the season. He played low in the lineup at the beginning, won some matches, got confidence and we’ve slowly moved him up. He’s done a better and better job up high in the lineup for us.”
Benito feels his background prepared him well high-pressure matches.
“Before coming to college I had some really hard championships and tournaments and gave me some experience with these types of matches,” he said. “So that helps a lot. I know how to control these situations a little bit more.”
The entire team is more in control of things these days. Benito points to a team meeting prior to the Senior Day match against Duke.
“Right before the Duke match, we had a team conversation,” he recalled. “We tried to change things a little bit because we weren’t winning matches we should have won. I think everything worked out pretty well after that. We beat Duke and then coming here, Notre Dame and Virginia Tech, now. So it’s working very well.”
A good sign that thing were working was Tech winning the doubles point for the first time in five matches. They’ve won it in each match during this tear.
“We just struggled a little bit most of the year,” Thorne said. “It’s definitely given us a bump. You have to be able to win matches without winning the doubles point but it definitely gives you momentum going into singles.”
Thorne feels momentum is on his team’s side and that the team’s recent winning mentality has spread throughout the locker room. It’s led to a more competitive attitude on the court and feeding off each other.
“Guys coming in as freshmen that don’t quite understand as much how each other can affect,” he said. “We did a great job today of staying on the court. Cole Fiegel, at No. 5, just stayed out there, lost the first set, came back and won the second and did a good job of being on the court. That helped Carlos, just having him out there. Michael Kay won the first set, lost the second but went deep in the third and was on the court fighting. It’s very contagious. Knowing two of the guys are still on the court and you’re sitting there fighting, still on the court, it helps everybody. Eddie [Segura] did a great job of being the catalyst and getting the W on the board and getting off the court really quick. So we got up 2-0 fairly quick and then it was a battle.”
Benito kidded that the streak is the team’s way of prolonging Segura’s career, as his countryman is the squad’s only senior.
“We want Eddie to stay here,” Benito said with a laugh. “We are playing for him. We want him to play one more match. So that’s our goal. That’s what we say before every match. We play for Eddie.”
Thorne believes you can extend that to not only playing for Segura.
“When they’re playing for each other incredible things can happen,” he said. “That’s what they’re doing right now.”
“The guys have been fighting all season and lost a lot of tough, tough matches,” he added. “All you can do is keep trying to do the right thing and keep believing, and keep trying to do the right thing, keep believing. Sometimes the results come and sometimes they don’t. Right here it’s the last hour and they’re coming.”
The Jackets are one match away from playing for an ACC Championship. Playing for, never mind winning, an ACC Championship might be considered improbable to some, but not to them.
They don’t believe that any more. They simply believe.
“We’re going to give 100 percent on the court, every one of us,” said Benito. “We are believing in each other.”
That also means keeping with what’s working. So Friday night will be the same as Thursday night and Wednesday night — study for next week’s exams and go to Olive Garden for dinner.
“I think it’s been working really well so I think we can get used to it,” Benito said, with a laugh. “Hopefully we are going to do it tomorrow night also.”