The Good Word | Matt Winkeljohn
Looking back, Kenny Thorne found a way to crack a smile about it, but there was nothing humorous as Pablo Schelcher made his ACC tennis debut last weekend, first on Friday night as Georgia Tech took on then No. 7 North Carolina and again Sunday afternoon against then No. 44 Duke.
Both times, the first-semester freshman from Madrid, Spain, was the last Yellow Jacket standing. Twice, Tech was tied 3-3 and his result in the Ken Byers Tennis Complex would swing each match one way or the other.
Never mind that Schelcher missed Tech’s first five ACC contests with elbow and knee problems. Forget that he carried just four college tennis matches of experience into the fray, winning one and losing three.
“He doesn’t know any better,” the men’s head coach said Tuesday. “You get out there and swing away and see what happens.”
The same thing happened both times. Schelcher won a pair of three-set matches to propel Tech to back-to-back 4-3 wins over ranked teams. And he had a blast doing it because he’s decided quickly that this team tennis thing can be pretty cool.
“It was actually unreal when I did it on Friday, and when I did it again Sunday I couldn’t believe it . . . ” Schelcher said. “I really like it.”
While he was new to his role, Schelcher was in a way familiar with the scene. This has become a Spanish thing as the last time the Jackets played at home, Carlos Divar, the junior from Vitoria, Spain, won the clinching point as Tech beat No. 21 Florida State 4-3 on March 1.
Tech (8-6, 3-2 ACC) has something to build upon with three straight 4-3 wins at home over ranked opponents sandwiched around a 4-3 loss at Clemson.
The Jackets are now ranked No. 44.
It’s crystal clear where they need foundational work. Tech must find a way to be at home on the road to earn an NCAA tournament bid. Being 8-1 at home – where their lone loss was 4-2 to now No. 19 Tennessee then No. 26 – is nice, but if Tech is going to finish .500 or better, which is requisite to qualify for the NCAAs, the Jackets need to win away.
They’re 0-5 on the road, with chances to do something about that Friday at No. 5 Virginia (12-3, 3-2) and Sunday at Virginia Tech (10-5, 1-3).
The remaining schedule is stout, as the Jackets also have scheduled contests against No. 2 Wake Forest (18-3, 4-0), No. 30 N.C. State (11-6, 2-1), Louisville (12-7, 1-4), and at No. 14 Notre Dame (10-8, 3-2) and at Boston College (3-8, 0-5).
A healthy Schelcher at No. 5 singles figures to help.
“We’ve done well at home and struggled on the road, but we needed to get some ranked wins . . . ” Thorne said. “For us, more than that, it’s having guys enjoy the moment of competing under the most pressure. When you’re at three-all, having guys be able to step up and get over the hump of winning some close matches is extremely important for the psyche of the team . . .
“Pablo did a great job of staying in the process, taking care of every point, doing what he can do. He wasn’t trying to do something that was above himself. He just stayed and challenged the guy point in and point out.”
Those matches were battle tests. And Schelcher passed.
North Carolina easily won the doubles point Friday, and moved into singles with ranked players at No. 1 (No. 47 William Blumberg), No. 2 (No. 40 Benjamin Sigouin), No. 3 (No. 107 Josh Peck) and No. 4 (No. 82 Brian Cernoch).
Tech’s lone ranked player, Divar (No. 30) lost at No. 1 singles, and UNC built a 3-2 lead although Phillip Gresk beat Sigouin 7-6 (7-5), 6-2.
Then, Andrew Li upset Peck 6-4, 7-6 (7-1).
And that left Schelcher.
He played very little team tennis growing up, as his club team generally played once a year in a team format. Mostly, that club was a training ground more than a team. There is no high school tennis in Spain.
“When all the rest of the team is on the sidelines looking at you, and cheering for you, it is so different and exciting,” Thorne said of Schelcher’s new world.
Pablo beat UNC’s Blaine Boyden 7-5, 4-6, 6-3 to clinch and trigger an avalanche.
The team format is agreeing with Schelcher, who has found it motivational to play not only for himself, but for teammates as well.
“Even if you think it’s going to be hard, or almost impossible, your mind sometimes tells you bad things but your body can do bigger things than your mind,” he said. “I really like it. For me, it really helps.”
Tech’s tennis team found a different situation against Duke.
After winning the doubles point, the Jackets dropped three singles matches to fall behind 3-1 and teeter on the verge of defeat.
They dug in, though, and Divar beat No. 41 Nick Stachowiak 7-5, 7-6 (7-2), and Chris Yun outlasted Sean Sculley 6-4, 2-6, 6-3 at No. 4.
Again, there was Schelcher, almost alone as a player yet with friends hollering nearby.
And an outsized crowd joined in, too.
“So many people showed up that hadn’t seen college tennis before,” Thorne said. “So, you see the pressure, and some people giving in to pressure and some people overcoming pressure.”
Schelcher took the long way to beat Duke’s Robert Levine 6-3, 2-6, 7-6 (11-9).
Then, for the third straight home match, the Jackets made a mosh pit amongst themselves.
“I’m not really used to it,” he said. “This is much more crazy.”