May 16, 2012
By Jon Cooper
– The Sweet 16.
Georgia Tech Women’s Tennis Head Coach Bryan Shelton has been here before and he’s won it all.
Not many figured Shelton would be at this stage with his 2012 squad, especially having to go to Tuscaloosa and take on the University of Alabama.
But here they are. On Thursday morning at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex, on the University of Georgia Campus, Shelton’s Yellow Jackets will take on No. 9 California at 9:00, with the winner getting to play top-ranked UCLA or Rice for a berth in the Final Four.
The road is a lot like 2007. when Tech knocked off an SEC school (Kentucky) to advance to Sweet 16, then took on Cal (this year’s Sweet 16 foe) in the semifinals and UCLA (this year’s No. 1 ranked team) in the championship match. The Final Four days are even exactly the same as in 2007.
Shelton took time to talk with Sting Daily about preparing his players for the Sweet 16, surviving the Tide, believeing in deja vu and stars aligning, and why greed is good for his players while less is more for him come Tournament time.
STING DAILY: How does it feel to be in the Sweet 16?
Bryan Shelton: We’re very excited. I think that when we set our goals a while back, one of our goals was to get to the Sweet 16, so it’s nice when you reach your goal. When you reach it, you enjoy it for a minute and then you start thinking, ‘Okay, what else can we do?’ This team is very motivated to continue to advance through the Tournament so we’re looking forward to the opportunity.
SD: Is there an advantage to playing on the University of Georgia courts?
SHELTON: We have good memories up there. It was just five years ago where we won a National Championship, so that certainly is still in our minds. I have pictures on my wall, which remind me all the time. It was fun to be there and I remember every match we played. When you go back to a place you have success. You always get those good feelings when you walk back onto the sight.
SD: There are parallels between this year and the 2007 postseason. Do you believe in the stars aligning?
SHELTON: It’s fun. I’ve gotten some messages from some of the girls that were on that 2007 team, thinking about it again and it seems like every time this time of year comes around, people look back and remember, especially since we’re playing in Athens again. I don’t put too much into it but I do know that even as a player, when I was playing way back when, that whenever I went to a place that I had success I tended to always play well again and again and again. So I think that there’s definitely something to that. When you have that good feeling inside when you walk into a place, even if you have struggled, you tend to play your best. I think we’re peaking at the right time. More important than where we’re going, I feel like this overall team has really just come together late in the season. I feel like it’s a great opportunity for us to go over there and play well.
SD: Having had some time to think about it, what stands out about the Alabama win?
SHELTON: it was draining, that’s for sure. It was emotional, that’s for sure. Our team got on that bus on the way home and they were singing half the way home. So they were flying high. We did it with so much adversity — when I say adversity, I mean the University of Alabama. It felt like they had the whole university there cheering against us and cheering for them. They’re a very good team and well-coached. So we had a lot going against us there. We just kind of just held on together and I thought that was special about the win. Our team, all we had was one another and we just kept fighting. It was one of those amazing feelings and you see that sometimes in other sports, like basketball, where a team goes into another team’s home gym and the crowd’s all cheering against them and you see that they’re still fighting and cheering one another on and it’s like them against the world. That was kind of how we felt when we were at Alabama. To come through in that environment as an underdog, that was special.
SD: After such an emotional win, what was the week like and how hard Is it hard to get team back up again?
SHELTON: This week, I think I got [the players’] attention a couple of days ago at practice, when it kind of felt like a couple of people were kind of resting on their laurels a little bit. I was like, ‘Wait a minute. We’re not going to do that.’ That’s the quickest way to get yourselves out of the tournament is to all of a sudden let down your guard. We’re still the underdog and we’ve still got to take that mentality to the match and we’ve still got to fight for every point. Let’s not be happy with just getting there. We’ve accomplished a goal, now let’s get greedy and go get some more.
SD: The team has had success in doubles. How important is winning the doubles point?
SHELTON: It’s important. I feel like I’d always rather have it than not have it. To have that little bit of an edge and that extra bit of pressure on the other team knowing that they’ve got to do something just a little bit more special to get the ‘W,’ which is winning four out of six matches. It certainly feels like more of a mountain to climb when you lose that doubles point. I give our team some credit. We’ve lost doubles a couple of times this year and bounced back and won the match. We’ve also won the doubles point and lost the match. So it’s kind of happened both ways to us. But our doubles have been really good. I feel like we’ve got three quality teams that we put out on the court. On any given day it seems like we could change our line-up around if we wanted to because they’re all three playing really well. I feel like they have confidence. They have confidence in one another, and they kind of know what they’re doing out there on the court and have a good idea how to play the game. That certainly helps us as a team knowing that we have an opportunity to win that first point.
SD: How important was Caroline Lilley’s win for her and for rest of team?
SHELTON: I think it was great for the team and for the three girls that won in singles (Alex Anghelescu, Viet Ha Ngo, Lilley) that day. They’re not the three that have had the most success throughout the season. So some of the girls that have come through for us this year, Jillian [O’Neill] and Elizabeth [Kilborn] and Lynn [Blau], I think it was good for them to see their teammates kind of save the day this time. I think that gives us a little bit more confidence that we’re good in all of our spots, we’re good in all of the doubles spots, we’re very good in every singles spot. So with that type of depth, that gives us more margin for error. If someone’s not on top of their game they’re going to get picked up by somebody else. I think that was a great thing. Caroline played her best tennis at Alabama, when the pressure was the greatest. That should give her some confidence. One thing that we always want to guard against is feeling happy with yourself or not being ready for the next opportunity to capitalize on one. I want her to be greedy. Not settle for just good when you can have great.
SD: You’ve coached an NCAA Champion. Do you have a set method or does each team has a different personality?
SHELTON: I think you have to change some things. There’s times when you have to be a little bit more aggressive with the coaching, there are times you sit back a little bit more. I always feel that at this time of year, we’ve been coaching so much, that this is the time where you would like to get out of the way a little bit more. Allow them to go out there and play. They should have some confidence that they do well and they have what it takes to be successful. So part of the coach’s role is to get out of the way sometimes. So I tend to do that a little bit more this time of year. Also, focus not so much on the X’s and O’s but focusing a little bit more on just taking care of the intangible things. Making sure the girls are approaching each match with the right mindset, the right attitude, knowing that they’re going to hustle, knowing that they’re going to be really stingy on the court. Take care of things that they can control and the controllable things. Not worry about the things they can’t control. The ones that do that the best will be the ones that are successful. I will focus a little bit more on those things. They know how to play now. They know where their strengths are and where their weaknesses are. We’ve seen this team before that we’re going to play on Thursday. We have an idea of what they’re going to bring to the table. So we just have to be ready ourselves.