April 18, 2011
By Matt Winkeljohn
Caroline Lilley had plenty to say Monday, and she said most of it quickly. That doesn’t mean she was in a hurry, but given that she began answering a few questions before they were all the way asked suggested that she wasn’t interested in waiting, camping, you know, like a baseliner.
After winning all four of her matches over the weekend, two at No. 2 singles and two while teamed with Jillian O’Neill in doubles, Lilley was tabbed Georgia Tech female student-athlete of the week.
That came as no surprise. The junior from Portland (yes, Oregon) has been a quick study since transferring from Kentucky. One doesn’t play in the savage ACC – where Tech is 5-6 and seeded seventh in the coming ACC Tournament — and assemble a 9-2 record without serious acumen.
The Jackets are a modest 12-9 overall, yet have been ranked generally in the teens and low 20s most of the season. Thursday’s opponent, 10th-seeded Maryland, is 3-8 in ACC play yet has been ranked in the 20s and 30s most of the season. The Terrapins, in fact, beat the Jackets in Atlanta earlier this season.
So the ACC is the real deal, and it’s been right for Lilley so far. She’s 17-4 overall in singles, and she and O’Neill are 5-0 since first being paired together a few weeks ago.
“I think it’s been a really solid. I had a couple losses during the year in singles . . . but I’ve never really had a lull,” she said. “There haven’t been a lot of easy days. This is definitely the most consistent I’ve played [as a collegian].”
It would be folly to assume doom for the Jackets, of course.
They were the ACC’s No. 7 seed last season, too, and won the whole thing. Head coach Bryan Shelton has an uncanny knack for timing. He and assistant Alison Silverio spend an inordinate amount of time and focus during the season on the process of improvement both in skills and match management with the greater goal of steeling players for rematches against their regular-season opponents.
That doesn’t mean Shelton and the Jackets didn’t want to win during the regular season.
“We’re all starting to realize this is the time, the best time to peak,” Lilley said. “We haven’t peaked yet. It’s a good thing going into this weekend knowing that we’re so close to breaking through. We’ve worked too hard to let this slip through our fingers. I think t here is a sense of urgency, like . . . here it is. “This is what we’ve played for, the reason we practice. This is why we’ve worked so hard . . . to [do well in the ACCs] and make the NCAAs.”
If the Jackets do well enough in the ACCs in Cary, N.C., they’ll not only make it to the NCAA tournament, but play host to first- and second-round matches. That would be a very good thing. Call it a goal.
The setting of goals is a bit like riding atop a razor under Shelton, and at Tech in general. You’re expected to really digest detailed scouting report, and put them into play. Most adjustments are built into the scouting plan ahead of time. It’s often up to players to see the triggers for those adjustments themselves, while in matches.
For all Division I college tennis players, the game is largely mental. Shelton’s M.O. is to make it more so. He doesn’t hide that during the recruiting process.
“For Tech, you have to recruit smart student-athletes. A lot of the people are going to be cerebral, and they’re going to want to be mentally tough,” Lilley said.
“[Shelton and Silverio] demand so much mentally, and the school demands so much. It is tough, and it is an adjustment. But if you look at the people who are most successful . . . when it comes down to it, a lot of it is mental.
“It’s just you out there trying to figure something out, it’s like a puzzle. [The uber-cerebral approach] might be a turnoff for some people [in the recruiting process], but those people are typically the ones who would fail at Tech any way.” Well, then! Care to elaborate Ms. Lilley?
“The teachers demand a lot of work outside the classroom, and that was a tough adjustment. It’s not that the information is harder, but the expectations are higher,” she said. “You have to budget your time so well . . . and put a lot of work into academics. It’s the first time in my life that I’ve been pushed this hard academically. It’s tough. There is not a single student here that would say school is easy.
“On the court, the practices, the work you put in . . . that’s what gets you the most ready to compete. If you don’t bring that intensity, that focus, you’re going to falter because you’re going to be too inconsistent mentally.”
Who remembers last year’s ACC Tournament? Ah, good times, capped by a trip to Wendy’s for ice cream. Remember?