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Tech's Unlikely Tennis Title: You Know When It's Real

April 26, 2010

Matt Winklejohn

`Twas at first a tough call trying to decide whether to blend a story about the Georgia Tech women’s tennis team’s ACC title into one with the golf team’s ACC title and the softball team’s ACC regular-season title after the Yellow Jackets’ Super Sunday haul.

Having just hung up the phone with Bryan Shelton, the women’s tennis coach who was moving mirthfully through South Carolina’s night by bus at nearly 10:30 p.m., it was tough no more. A mandate: the real, “Thin Gold Line” deserves a headline all its own.

Shelton has no subs and therefore one option: play every girl he has, hope for the best and plan – or scheme — like the devil ahead of time.

First, when anecdotal evidence emerges about a college athletic team talking its coach into stopping for ice cream to celebrate victory, the needle begins pointing top-of-page.

And when there is a plucky group that arrives by VW bug among ACC peers in Aston Martins, and they get out and steal all the country clubbers’ lunch money – or beat the No. 11-, No. 8- and No. 1-ranked teams in the nation — in daylight on consecutive days, well, that unit stands alone . . . a temple of temerity.

ACC men’s basketball is rarely – if ever – as competitive as the gauntlet run by these Tech women. Two teams eliminated on the other side of the bracket, Duke and Florida State, were ranked in the top 20.

So it was a long trip to Cary, N.C. that might’ve felt like a trans-continental bus ride at the end of a season that was made longer by unanticipated transfers and injuries like the one that left 2008 NCAA singles champion and captain Amanda McDowell on the sideline. At times Tech had to forfeit matches.

Sunday’s trip home? That was a transcendental bus glide, baby.

“I must be in a dream,” Shelton said on the phone, surely becoming part of a select group to utter as much near Spartanburg. “[Being on that bus] just kind of pulls you closer together. When you have an experience like we just had [beating Miami, Clemson and North Carolina, all of whom beat Tech 5-2 in the regular season], there is nothing better in sports than to be able to share it. I wouldn’t trade it.

“It’s one of those things where [at times this season] we were really just trying to hold everything together, and keep focusing on the things that we could control.”

Tech had to swap paint on Tobacco Road, in No. 1 North Carolina’s driveway.

The Jackets have the No. 1-ranked player in the nation. Sophomore Irina Falconi won her school-record 26th match in three sets Sunday on a bum ankle to clinch the match.

Still, Shelton said picking an MVP for Tech would be difficult.

Elizabeth Kilborn, our freshman, went 4-0 at No. 5 [singles],” the coach said. “At No. 4 [Lynn Blau], same thing. Sasha [Krupina] was 3-1 in singles [at No. 3], and came through big in No. 1 doubles. To get three out of four wins at the No. 2 doubles spot [Sunday] was big.”

Shelton does serious scouting, and self-scouting. He expands the range of what he and the Jackets can control. His team did not look like an 18-9 squad that had gone 5-5 in the ACC.

“I think it helps when we get to this tournament that we’ve seen these teams,” he said. “When you take it one at a time, and start looking at X’s and O’s to see what is needed in each match, it looks possible. We have a talented group, a young group, and a group willing to make adjustments.”

That last statement, in the humble opinion of an amateur tennis analyst who is anything but an amateur in analyzing competition, keyed everything.

Shelton’s players were willing to adapt game plans on a day-by-day, match-by-match basis based in great measure on what worked and did not in regular-season meetings with the same opponents.

The result Sunday, after the Jackets secured the doubles point, did not smoothly record itself in history. Tech fell behind 2-1 before Kilborn tied it, and then trailed 3-2 only to see those Tar Heels fans left terribly saddened by the sight of Blau getting blasted 6-1 in the first set to lend dramatic effect to her trumping UNC’s Gina Suarez-Malaguti 6-3, 6-3 next.

Jeez, has Blau come to life recently.

And Falconi – playing on an ankle that would’ve sent you to the hospital – never left. She broke serve to clinch the whole match, beating No. 22 (nationally) Sanaz Marand 6-1, 3-6, 6-4.

Falconi, Blau and Kilborn were undefeated at the ACCs.

So I asked about Wendy’s.

When Tech sports information assistant Dan Goldberger called me as I was on my way to the offices Sunday (opposite Alexander Memorial Coliseum on 10th), I said, “You’re not calling because Tech lost.”

Breathless, which I don’t believe I’ve known Dan to be given that he’s heavy-laden with life’s experiences, or married and poor like me, he gasped, “Yeah, we’re at Wendy’s, getting ready to get back on the bus . . . “

Gold mine!

When time came around later in the evening, after the Spurs had knuckle-sandwiched the Mavs and before the Nuggets wallowed a third straight time in coach-less misery, I called Shelton via Goldberger.

Had to ask about Wendy’s, and if everybody ordered a Frosty (a tasty milk-shake treat).

“That was exactly the conversation,” Shelton said. “We were just a few minutes from the [ACC Tournament] site. They were so excited, and I was happy that they took pleasure in the simple things. This is just a great group of kids that stays out of trouble, they do things right, they’re role models for kids who look up to them.”

And they wanted ice cream.

“I think Sasha [Krupina, who won a clinching third-set tie-break match in the quarterfinals against Miami] was the one that was particularly excited to go there, and Irina wanted the treat although she said she wouldn’t go overboard.”


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