May 10, 2013
By Jon Cooper
The beauty of the NCAA Tournament is the potential to see a team that you’ve never seen.
For Georgia Tech women’s tennis, the No. 23 team in the nation, making its 14th straight trip to the NCAAs, any team will do, as they haven’t played another team since April 26 at the ACC Tournament, then having to get through finals.
“We haven’t had a chance to compete against other teams. We’ve been competing against each other in practice,” said senior Elizabeth Kilborn, who carries 82 career singles victories into the first round in Gainesville, Fla. “I’m ready to go out and face some other teams. We’re all eager to get down there and get things started.”
Tech will get the opportunity starting at 10 a.m. today when it takes the court at Linder Stadium at Ring Tennis Complex on the University of Florida campus.
Yale will be the opponent. The Bulldogs, ranked 35th in the nation, finished 17-3 and have similar feelings about seeing another team as they haven’t played since April 27, the last day of the season, when they beat Brown and earned a share of the Ivy crown with No. 57 Columbia.
While are vaguely familiar with senior and All-Ivy League first-teamer Elizabeth Epstein and junior and second-teamer Annie Sullivan — the duo also comprised an All-Ivy League doubles team — Tech knows little about Ivy League Rookie of the Year Madeleine Hamilton, also a first-teamer.
Tech head coach Rodney Harmon isn’t really concerned with the team he doesn’t know. He’s figured their tendencies from film and had conversations with other coaches. Harmon is more concerned with the team that he does know.
“We try to control what we can control. That’s our play and what we do,” he said. “So we really focus on what we do well. The patterns of play that work for each person, we focus on that. We focus on our doubles. We focus on our footwork and understanding what’s going on in a match and talking through adjustments that need to be made. I think think the challenge is to prepare YOUR team.”
Having a such a young team isn’t a concern, as the Jackets enter with upperclassmen Kilborn and junior Muriel Wacker, both of whom have seen the Yellow Jackets reach the Sweet 16.
“I think Liz and Muriel both will be instrumental in helping prepare the freshmen and making sure they understand it’s an opportunity to go out and play and do your best and compete hard,” said Harmon. “It’s no different than when we play Georgia or we play any of the teams that we play that are really good. You have to be ready to play when you step out there. That’s what I’ve tried to set with the team this whole week. We have proven that we can play well against very good teams. It requires each player to play at a high focus and intensity level.”
Amongst the hottest players the Jackets have is their all-conference freshman, Kendal Woodard, who is 13-5 in dual matches, 7-2 in the ACC and has four wins over ranked opponents under her belt. Woodard also forms half of the No. 60 team in the country with fellow freshman Megan Kurey.
“I am so proud of [Woodard] and I’m really excited about her progress,” said Harmon. “But I also think a lot of her improvement as a player was triggered by the improvement of the other freshmen. It became almost a ‘I’m doing this can you match it?’ Kendal has really risen to the occasion and played some tremendous tennis and it’s definitely showed our other freshmen that they can do the same thing.”
Kilborn would like to see the Jackets do the same thing they did last year in the first round of the NCAAs, when they went to an ACC school, (Tuscaloosa, Ala.,) and advanced to the Sweet 16 first by knocking off Oklahoma State then stunning host Alabama, 4-3.
“Just talking about it gives me chills,” said Kilborn, who won with Lynn Blau to secure the doubles point but fell in singles. “That was just incredible. We had had a really up-and-down season. For it all to culminate there, at the Tournament … You want to be playing your best and we were. That was something so rewarding and such a special memory.”
Kilborn believes the Jackets can create another special memory but first must get through the first round.
“We’ve just got to take it one match at a time,” she said. “If I’ve learned anything in my past four years here, come tournament time, whether it ACC or NCAA Tournament, you can’t overlook anybody. So right now we’re focused on Yale.”
Should the Jackets win they would go right to the top of the bracket and face No. 1 Florida. But that’s not in their thinking right now.
“I really don’t look down the road too far because overlooking Yale would be a big mistake,” said Harmon. “We have to keep our minds on what we have in front of us. If we play Florida, that’s great and we can prepare to do that. But right now, I don’t need to focus much on them because they have to play Marist and we have to play Yale.”
While Kilborn admitted she uncharacteristically peeked at the bracket, her only thought about University of Florida tennis concerns the men’s side, where long-time Yellow Jackets coach Bryan Shelton is coaching.
Both Harmon and Kilborn said seeing Shelton was something they were looking forward to while in Gainesville.
“Bryan is one of the finest people that I know,” said Harmon, who was hired shortly after Shelton left for Florida. “So I’m looking forward to catching up with him. I’m excited for him that he’s hosting as well and hoping that from his side that his men’s team plays very, very well.”
“I talked to him the day the draw came out,” said Kilborn. “I’m really excited to see him. I can’t wait to see him and see his family and talk with him and his daughter. I sure hope that he’ll come watch us play. I know they’ve got their hands full. They’ve got a tough draw down there. I’m excited to see him. I can’t wait.”