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Aug 20, 2013

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

Kenny Thorne can recall in a big-picture way what Georgia Tech freshman are going through, as school started just Monday and so much is new. Whether he liked it more than a quarter century ago or not, the men’s tennis coach is enjoying it now – again.

Four of his nine players are fresh faces.

Beyond that, Thorne – who played at Tech from 1984-’88 – not only relishes the annual indoctrination process that goes with welcoming newcomers and returning players into new roles, but there’s also this: his daughter, Rachel, is a freshman cross country athlete at Tech.

And Tuesday was her birthday. So Rachel and her father had a birthday lunch, and then, “she walked to class, and I walked to work,” the coach said.

Thorne and his wife, Bridget, who preceded their daughter as a Tech cross country athlete, do not expect the father-daughter meetings to be an everyday thing even though they’re in such close proximity to each other.

You know the deal with young folks branching out and doing their own thing.

The coach, however, has a unique exposure to future generations in this key evolutionary period. It’s part of his job description. And he loves it.

Thorne respects graduated players Juan Spir and Juan Melian (who is on campus finishing school this fall, but not eligible to play).

Yet with the arrival of freshmen Carlos Benito (Madrid, Spain), Cole Fiegel (Alachua, Fla.) and Will Showers (Norcross) along with transfer sophomore Casey Kay (from Georgia), there is invigoration not only in the Yellow Jackets but in Thorne.

Last season, when the Jackets were understaffed in the player ranks, was tough.

The existence of the new Ken Byers Tennis Complex, which came on-line in January, has helped change that. It’s up to Thorne, assistant Derek Schwandt and the players to take charge of an exciting momentum train and push it hard down the tracks.

“That’s the great thing about coaching. With this, [returning] people go into different roles, and when you get four new guys on the team there’s definitely an excitement,” he said. “You know what’s amazing . . . before the new facility, we talked about it as it was being built, and that didn’t make that much of an impact [with prospects].

“As soon as you brought somebody here and put them in the players lounge looking over six indoor courts and the beautiful outdoor courts, and you see the skyline . . . you can’t explain that in an e-mail. As it played out, we got the 11th-ranked recruiting class in the nation, so yes it makes an impact. I’m excited about this class, and our next one.”

Practice will not officially begin for a couple more weeks. For now, NCAA rules allow players two hours of supervised on-court time per week, and another six of conditioning. Most of the Jackets were hitting Tuesday afternoon on their own.

Juniors Vikram Hundal, Eduardo Segura and Colin Edwards, and sophomores Nathan Rakitt and Anish Sharma are back at work with new teammates

A bubbling-up process is about to begin. Leaders will emerge. Thorne didn’t want to say who might jump ahead in that category.

“I want to wait and see. I don’t want to name one now because it might hold another one back. We’ve got a couple people in mind,” the coach said. “Your leaders, it’s not necessarily who’s No. 1 or playing their best. [Leaders] learn how to put themselves below everybody else to serve the team . . . It’s a humble position.”

Back in his day, Thorne put together one of the greatest careers in Tech tennis history. He’s not clear on details from his first forays around campus, but seeing students and their parents crawling all over the place over the weekend, especially at Sunday’s convocation at the McCamish Pavilion across the street, touched a few soft spots.

“My memory is not too good. That was a long time ago,” he said with a chuckle. “At our first team meeting [this past Sunday], I said, ‘Guys, do me a favor and let’s just shut up and go look at the battlegrounds that we’re going to be on.’

“We were silent and we just walked around. I want to see what the fans are going to see. You look down over the courts, and . . . it’s just a cool perspective. It was a cool way to appreciate what was built and the privilege to play on it, and to be inspired.”

Even after all these years on The Flats, Thorne faces an annual learning curve himself. Again, it is something he relishes, a detail perhaps left out of any official job description, yet a nuance that he treasures.

“We have to spend a little extra time getting to know each other, and the standards of Georgia Tech and the tennis program. We need to get to know each other on the court and off for obvious reasons of doubles and who can match up with each other,” the coach explained.

“But that’s also for coaching each different personality, for us to know what to say to each kid. It’s fun process, and one of the things I look forward to each year.”

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