ATLANTA — Georgia Tech senior Matt Cozad (St. Petersburg, Fla.) had no idea where tennis would take him when his grandmother first placed an old, wooden racket in his hand at the tender age of 5.
"Who knows if I would even be at Georgia Tech," said Cozad, reflecting on the many Saturday afternoons spent with his grandmother, Katherine Everett, hitting a ball back and forth over a crack in her driveway. "Tennis has opened a lot of doors for me. It has helped me get a college education and has been a big part of my life for the last 15 years."
Now as the Yellow Jackets prepare for their third consecutive NCAA Regional appearance in Cozads final season, all those associated with the Rambling Wreck program are glad tennis helped steer Matt to Tech. The Jackets (15-7) will take on Boise State (15-11) in the first round of this years NCAA team tournament at 1 p.m. EST Friday in Palo Alto, Calif. The winner will meet the winner of the regionals other first-round match between second-ranked and regional host Stanford and Sacramento State.
"Im really excited to be going out to Stanford for the NCAAs," Cozad said. "Its a place Ive never been before, and they are the four-time defending national champions. There is so much tennis tradition at Stanford, but our focus has been on Boise State. They are a solid team who has been ranked ahead of us the past couple seasons. They are going to be just as fired up as we are because theyre getting to play at Stanford as well."
Cozad and fellow senior Benjamin Cassaigne (Paris, France) have been the driving forces behind a Yellow Jacket team that has attained a current national ranking of 32, finished second in the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season race and advanced to the finals of the conference tournament for the first time since 1994. The impetus for Techs success under first-year head coach Kenny Thorne stems from what Cozad called a subpar season a year ago.
"As seniors, Benjamin and I knew we were going to the focal point of this years team," Cozad said. "Neither one of us had very good years last season, and that motivated us to come out and put a stamp on this year."
Although he played somewhat in the shadow of Cassaigne — the 1999 ACC Player of the Year, Cozad quietly put together a solid senior campaign. He was an all-ACC performer and captured ACC flight championships at No. 2 singles and at No. 3 doubles with partner Sergio Aguirre (Atlanta, Ga.). He heads into the NCAAs with 79 career singles wins, the sixth-highest total in school history.
"Im proud of what Matt has accomplished this year," Thorne said. "He had a tough junior season, but has really come on this year. Benjamin has gotten a lot of the publicity this season, but Matt has had an outstanding year in his own right. He was the ACC champion at No. 2 singles and No. 3 doubles and won some big matches for us."
For all of his accomplishments on the court, Cozad is perhaps most grateful for what being a student-athlete at Tech has allowed him to do off it. Through his participation in Georgia Techs Total Person Program, Cozad serves as president of the Student-Athlete Advisory Board and participates in an outreach and mentoring program with Atlanta-area school children.
"Georgia Tech has the most comprehensive support programs for student-athletes to be successful both academically and athletically," Cozad said. "The Total Person program helps you grow not only as athletes, but as people, too. A lot of people can come to college and get better on the court or on the field, but becoming a more complete person is what separates Georgia Tech from other places."
No matter where goes next, Cozad will never forget the sport that has afforded him such opportunities and the person who introduced him to it.
"My grandmother introduced me to the game," Cozad said. "She was my biggest supporter and was glad that I had found something that I really enjoyed. She takes some pride in the fact that she had something to do with that. Shes the one who actually put the racket in my hand."