May 13, 2012
By Matt Winkeljohn
– We all have stories to tell, but it sure seems like Bryan Shelton and his teams accumulate more than a fair share of them that are really and truly worth a listen (or read).
The Georgia Tech women’s tennis team, ranked No. 26, did more on Saturday than upset No. 8 Alabama for a ticket to the Sweet 16. That was a case of survival and emergence.
There might have been 15 Tech fans there Saturday among 600 or 700, and although they were full-throated, the Yellow Jacket voices were drowned in a sea of Crimson Tide.
When weather forced the Alabama-Tech match indoors, “it was deafening. The atmosphere was incredible. The umpires were trying to control it just so the girls could serve,” said the Tech head coach.
“We hadn’t really seen an environment like that all year. Their players definitely fed off of it. Our girls were really struggling to hear me, even during the changeovers.”
The Jackets hadn’t seen that kind of fuss largely because, frankly, that’s not typical for college tennis. Yet the Alabama women were ramped up and on the verge of extending the best season they’ve had in several years.
Their fans were fully on board as if the Tide were playing the Tigers with the goal-line and a sudden-death win just yards away. Tech was hanging on for life.
With the way the NCAA sets up its national championship tournament, the 16 regional sites for first- and second-round matches are generally staged at the schools that are ranked in the top 16 after conference tournaments. Far more often than not, the host schools win two matches to advance.
The Jackets did not have the regular season that they and Shelton envisioned. Injuries had something to do with that, a difficult schedule was part of it, and in some cases crisis of confidence came into play.
As is so often the case, however, Shelton rallied his girls to their best tennis late in the season. The Jackets won their final three regular-season matches, blitzed Maryland in the ACC Tournament, upset Miami – which had drubbed Tech in the regular season – and then took No. 7 North Carolina to the wire before falling 4-3 in the ACC semis.
Alabama had great success in doubles all season, but the Jackets wrestled the doubles point from the Tide when Lynn Blau and Elizabeth Kilborn won on court No. 2 – over ‘Bama’s 41st-ranked duo – to give Tech a 2-1 edge in tandem play.
That was very, very big.
All this left action on one court. At No. 2, Alabama’s 52nd-ranked Alexa Guarachi took the first set from Caroline Lilley only to see Lilley grind out a 7-6 win in the second set.
One set, between these two girls, would decide a berth in the Sweet 16.
Amid the roar, Guarachi moved to a 5-3 lead. One more game, and the Tide would roll into Athens, where the NCAAs will be held later this week.
Lilley had plenty of reasons to be uptight.
Unlike so many collegiate players, she is not a lifer. A multi-sport athlete while growing up in Portland, Ore., she was encouraged to try tennis by her father. She improved quickly, walked on at Kentucky as a freshman, and transferred to Tech last season.
“For it to come down to that moment to prolong her college career, and our season . . . she’s had some physical struggles this season, and some confidence issues,” Shelton said. “She didn’t have a ton of good matches to draw from, to look back on and think, ‘I can do this.’ Caroline had a lot of hard work, though, and I think she leaned on that.”
With so much in the balance, Lilley at that point had a 6-6 record in dual meets. She’d gone 3-4 in an injury-plagued conference season, and there was all that noise, noise, noise.
“I was kind of giving myself a little pep talk, telling myself that if we lose it had been a great match,” Shelton said. “And I was going to be happy for Jenny Mainz, the Alabama coach. I know her well and respect her.”
Shelton interrupted his own ever-so-brief pity party, and locked back onto the drama. Lilley did as well; there weren’t many there in Gold & White, but her teammates were present, extremely loud, and close enough for Lilley to hear them.
“You can kind of sense that from your teammates,” Shelton said. “Caroline was just so calm.”
Lilley served and pulled within 5-4, broke Guarachi to knot the set at 5-5, and then won on service again to go up 6-5.
The place was going nuts.
“She was a late comer, but her athleticism and drive propelled her up the ladder,” Shelton said of Lilley. “It felt like there were a billion people there. They were up 5-3, thinking, ‘We’re going to the Sweet 16 . . . ‘ It was a huge, huge moment for them.”
And Lilley stole it with a backhand down the line and past Guarachi for a 7-5 win in the final set. Down 5-3 and in a cauldron, she won four straight games to send Tech to Athens.
She, “played the best tennis of her college career,” Shelton said. “That’s the most pressure we’ve felt all season. It was do or die.”
The Tech crowd was small, proud, loud and of special composition.
Shelton’s father made the drive to Tuscaloosa from Bryan’s hometown of Huntsville, Ala. Nathanial Shelton has been a gradual convert to tennis over the years, and Catherine Harrison will soon be in the thick of things for the Jackets.
She’s probably the top recruit in perhaps the best class Shelton has ever recruited. The incoming freshman class of four is ranked No. 2 in the nation. Harrison, who last summer played in the Wimbledon girls singles and doubles championships, traveled from the Memphis area to get a sense of what lies ahead.
“Dad was an Army guy with four kids and not a lot of money, and I was playing a sport that didn’t quite jive with him,” Shelton said. “But he’s come around. My mother and sister had made plans a few weeks ago to visit our niece in Indiana, so they couldn’t come. But it was pretty neat to have my dad there, doing his best to yell all weekend.
“It was an incredible environment. I wish I could get all the prospects in there to see something like that . . . It surely didn’t disappoint.”
I wish I was there. Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.