June 8, 2016
This story originally appeared in the May issue of Buzz magazine. Read the entire issue online or subscribe to the magazine here.
By Jon Cooper
– It’s not “coach speak” when coaches say keeping a program at the top is harder than getting there.
They’re similarly not just throwing out a line when they say having quality people is the key to sustained success — the kind of people that lead with their talent and by example, especially in overcoming adversity.
Megan Kurey, Kendal Woodard and Natasha Prokhnevska have been such quality people, and they are big reasons why Georgia Tech women’s tennis saw sustained success in the first four years of the Rodney Harmon Era, and why it shows signs it’ll continue to ascend even once they’re gone.
“They have really paved the way for the Georgia Tech women’s tennis team both on the court and off the court,” said sophomore Johnnise Renaud, Tech’s No. 1 singles player the last two seasons. “They’re people that I could go to with anything. They’re people that I will keep close to me even after my college career.”
The Yellow Jackets finished 21st, 18th, and 18th nationally in Harmon’s first three seasons and were 15th entering the 2016 NCAA Tournament. But the coaching transition to Harmon from former coach Bryan Shelton might not necessarily have been as seamless and the fate of the program easily could have gone sideways in the spring of 2013, Harmon’s first season.
Freshmen Kurey, Woodard and Prokhnevska, comprising 50 percent of the roster, wouldn’t let it happen.
“They were the backbone of our team, and they stabilized the program, not only just from match play but also from how they practiced and how hard they worked,” Harmon said. “We were able to finish in the top 20 in the country due in large part to their efforts. They each clinched big matches, played really well. That’s what they’ve done all four years they’ve been here.”
In 2013, the team had only six players and only one senior, Elizabeth Kilborn. While a superb player and as great a leader, she could not do it alone. The freshmen made sure she didn’t have to.
Woodard, playing No. 2 singles, went 24-12 overall and 16-5 in dual matches, winning her final 10 matches of the year. She went 7-2 in ACC play with five wins against nationally ranked competition (tying Kilborn). Kurey solidified the fourth spot, winning 20 matches, and went 6-3 down the stretch. In doubles, childhood friends Kurey and Woodard proved a dynamite combination — 24-6, 20-3 in dual matches, 9-1 in ACC play. They somehow were not selected to compete in NCAAs, a slight they’d make up for the following year.
Prokhnevska played at No. 3, going 18-14 (11-8 in duals), winning her final four matches of the season. Win No. 18 turned out to be that season’s — and maybe the program’s — key moment.
Georgia Tech earned a trip to Gainesville, Fla., for NCAA Regionals, where they’d play Ivy League Champion Yale. The shorthanded Jackets had only five healthy players and had to forfeit the doubles point and one singles match.
Down 2-0 and having to win four of the remaining five singles matches, they tied the match, but then saw Kilborn fall. Down, 3-2, with no margin for error, both Woodard and Prokhnevska needed to win. Woodard held up her end, winning 6-3, 7-5. Proknevska had clinched two matches during the season, but the freshman was facing junior Annie Sullivan, who was 19-0 in singles matches that season.
Harmon calls what happened next “probably one of the best matches she’s played.”
Prokhnevska spotted Sullivan the first set, then fought back to take the final two, 6-0, 6-3, to clinch the match and allow Tech to advance. They’d fall 4-0 to Florida, but a mindset for the team had been forged: Find a way and, if not, go down fighting.
Kurey – Do As I Say And As I Did
No one personified that will or faced more adversity than Kurey.
She and Woodard built on their sensational freshman season as sophomores, going 27-11, including going 14-3 during the indoor season. They won their last 10 matches, with their last four coming at the NCAA Indoor Championships in Flushing, N.Y. They toppled USC’s Giuliana Olmos and Zoe Scandalis, 6-0, 4-6, 6-0, in the semis, then defeated Louisville’s Julia Fellerhoff and Rebecca Shine 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 to take the title.
“They really should have qualified for the NCAAs their first year,” Harmon said. “But they had such a phenomenal year in both singles and doubles. They won regionals and in New York, overcoming whatever obstacles came up. There were a lot of good teams from around the country, and they were able to find a way to win against all of them.”
But following that sophomore season, the duo — Kurey, an Alpharetta native, and Woodard, from Stockbridge — which had been playing together since middle school and hit No. 1 in the nation on Feb. 11, 2014, found their careers on separate trajectories.
Injuries hampered Kurey’s final two seasons, all but keeping her off the court as a player. But it couldn’t keep her off the court. She remained an inspirational figure, hiding her personal frustration while encouraging her teammates.
“We were lucky to have such great senior captains when we were underclassmen, so having them as a role model prepared me for last year and this year,” said Kurey. “We have had a rough couple of years, a lot of obstacles, but just getting through those obstacles has really brought us together as a team. Just how much we’ve been through and how much we’ve accomplished as a team is really a testament to how we were able to get through everything. I couldn’t have asked for better people to help me through it. So I’ve been very lucky.”
Nothing makes Woodard’s magnetic smile disappear faster than reflecting on the not-so-lucky part of Kurey’s career but nothing brings it back faster than recalling how her resolve and positive energy.
“Injuries [stink] so you really just try to be positive,'” Woodard said. “It’s been a little rough for Megan, but we’re here and she’s always out there pushing us no matter what, even if she’s hurt. She’s like, `Alright, guys we can still do this.’ She’s always pushing us to do better.”
She was able to lend a helping hand to Harmon.
“She’s a consistent person. Her family has done a phenomenal job in instilling in her the importance of when you take on responsibility to carry it out to the final point,” he said. “As an athlete it’s not always going to go perfectly. Your body is sometimes going to give out on you. You have to bounce back. But you don’t pout. You try to help the other players, support them.
“I trust her enough to where I can say, `Megan, Can you coach this person? This is what I need you to tell them,'” he added. “Or I’ll come over to her and say, `Hey, what do you see?’ I trust what she sees, because she has such a great tennis mind, and she sees things so well.”
Where Kurey, a 2014 ITA All-American in doubles and All-ACC second-teamer in 2014, will make things happen next is still to be determined, but she is, predictably, upbeat.
“I’m still sorting some things out right now but I’m going to pursue my master’s, hopefully get a graduate assistant spot at a school that I’m kind of setting up for,” said Kurey. “I want to stay within sports because it’s been such a big part of my life. Right now I’m just planning on getting my MBA.”
Kendal Woodard: Doubles Dutchess
Woodard continued her run of dominance in doubles, pairing with fiery New Zealander Paige Hourigan. In their first season together, they went 16-4, 16-2 in dual matches, 8-1 within the ACC and 6-2 vs. nationally ranked opponents. The duo reached as high as No. 13 and qualified for NCAAs, winning a round before getting knocked out in the round of 32 by the nation’s No. 5 team.
They picked up where they left off in 2015-16, cracking the top 10 in the final regular season poll. It’s a different world pairing with Hourigan, but the ride is proving just as fun.
“They’re two different people. Paige is a little more feisty than Megan,” Woodard, a 2014 ITA All-American, and All-ACC first-teamer, said with a laugh. “With Megan it was fun because we came in together, we won National Indoors together. With Paige, it’s just great. I’m happy to be able to make it this far with Megan and Paige here to help me. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
Harmon feels that Woodard, is being a tad modest.
“Kendal was one of the best doubles players in the country when she came into college,” he said. “She has just done a great job working with Megan first, then working with Paige developing chemistry, because over time it takes chemistry to really develop into a really good team.” Hourigan gives the credit to her partner.
“Pretty much my job is to set her up and do my thing at the back,” she said. “She’s just phenomenal. Her big serve, her big smash, her volleys, her hands are just great. Whoever she plays with, they’re going to do well. I’m just blessed to be able to play with her and be doing so well.”
“It’s a testament to Kendal, how good a doubles player she is,” agreed Kurey. “No matter who she plays with, she always does really well, and they’re really successful.”
As for the future, Woodard isn’t looking past NCAAs, hoping for one final big run with Hourigan in Tulsa.
“I haven’t decided if I want to try to play [professionally] or not,” she said. “If not, I love sports and everything about it, so I’d definitely want and try to do something in sports marketing after school.”
Natasha Prokhnevska: Driven To Perfection
Prokhnevska will forego tennis, putting her talents into science.
A 2015 All-ACC academic team, and academic honor roll and ITA Scholar-Athlete in 2013 and 2014, she knows exactly the road she wants to travel and won’t accept anything less.
While the Wilmington, Del., native is best remembered statistically for winning ACC Player of the Week for Feb. 18, 2014, those around her remember her best for her competitive fire, the kind she showed in that regional against Yale — the kind that inspired her teammates.
“She’s hates to lose,” said Woodard. “That makes me want to win, too, just as bad.”
“She hates to lose more than anything in the world. She’s also extremely precise. So you put those two together and sometimes it’s good and it’s bad,” Harmon said with a laugh. “Everyone make some errors. It’s really who bounces back from the errors and who makes adjustments. Sometimes she doesn’t do as good a job of accepting that she’s going to make mistakes. But her desire to work hard on the court in practice and to give everything she’s got in matches is unparalleled.”
Prokhnevska is taking that desire to be perfect, that precision, that unstoppable drive, and following the family line. Her dad owns a Ph.D. in biochemistry and works for a biotechnology company, while her mom has a Ph.D. in biophysics and does DNA sequencing at the University of Delaware. Natasha plans to stay in Atlanta, pursuing her master’s in immunology and molecular pathogenesis at Emory University.
“It’s what I really love to do, I’ve done a lot of projects based on immunology research and I think it’s such an incredible field,” she said. “I would love to eventually work on something clinical, either vaccines or cancer immunotherapy, something that can really help people.
“It’s just going to be a great opportunity to stick around in Atlanta, but be at Emory doing something that I really love,” she added. “Not every scientist is lucky enough to produce something that is clinically relevant, but that would definitely be a dream, to be on a project that has clinical results or clinical value to it.”
Harmon has no doubt she can make that dream reality.
“She loves it so passionately that she wants to explain it to YOU. She tried to explain it to me, and it goes so far over my head,” he said with a laugh. “She’s so passionate about it that you’re engaged and you want to talk to her about it. I just can’t answer anything back. She’s got lofty goals, but she’s got such razor focus and such a tremendous work ethic that I feel confident that she’s going to do really big things in the future.”
Thanks to Kurey, Woodard and Prokhnevska, so will Georgia Tech Tennis.
“The most special thing is they’ve continued to work hard and bring the younger players along,” Harmon said. “I think that’s the legacy they’re going to have more than anything else, that they stabilized the program. They were able to keep us on a steady course, so I think that’s really the legacy that they’ve been able to bring to Georgia Tech.”
The legacy will live on, though they will be missed.
“I get a little teary-eyed just talking about it — it’s going to be hard seeing them go,” said Renaud. “But I know that they’ll still be around and be there for us for next season and all the seasons to come.”
“They’ve been like our older sisters,” agreed Hourigan. “They’ve taught us everything that we needed to know. They’ve just been great, for me, especially, coming in, since I was from another country. They were always there for me. Playing on Senior Day with them, it was pretty exciting but sad at the same time.”
Harmon also got a little emotional thinking about seeing this senior class go.
“Those four years go so quickly,” he said. “But they have done such a great job for me, helping me to build a program and hold it steady when we were stuck with only six players for two years. They leave the program in a much better state than when they started. That’s really great.”