By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
Tempting as it may be to suggest that Victoria Flores has been waiting for a magical moment, it wouldn’t be right because she doesn’t wait for much of anything.
Shoot, as she and fellow Georgia Tech freshman Ida Jarlskog finished off North Carolina’s Alle Sanford and Marika Akkerman, 6-4, Saturday in Chapel Hill, N.C., Flores was so wrapped up that she had to collect herself to understand what she and Ida had done.
Playing together for the first time this spring, they clinched the doubles point for the Yellow Jackets.
That was a big deal, with Tech going on to a 4-3 upset of the No. 1-ranked Tar Heels — the second straight season the Jackets won there. Last year, Tech (14-3, 5-1 ACC) snapped UNC’s streak of 50 consecutive home wins and 36 straight ACC victories. Saturday was the first time since then that the Heels (17-2, 6-1) lost at home.
“We barely even noticed that it came down to our match because it was just the last few points, but it’s so awesome that our very first match against the No. 1 team in the country, and we won at No. 2 to clinch the doubles point,” Flores recalled. “That gave us confidence moving forward.”
Indeed, the very next day Flores and Jarlskog again clinched the doubles point for the Jackets, and she banked her first ACC singles victory at No. 6 singles as Tech won 6-1 at then-No. 42 North Carolina State.
That was doubly significant given Flores’ struggles in singles, where she lost eight straight matches this spring before winning three of her past four.
It looks like Flores began to gain her footing a few weeks ago in Lubbock, Texas, where the Jackets beat Cornell and then-No. 9 Texas Tech. Against the Red Raiders, Tech was tied 3-3 when Flores beat Lana Rush 7-5, 3-6, 6-3 to clinch the team match on March 18.
“That was huge for us,” said head coach Rodney Harmon. “She’s been a bit frustrated that she hasn’t been able to play her best because we know the level she can play at is quite high. In doubles out there, she really played lights out.
“It’s started to translate to her singles. We’re excited that she’s starting to get back to her game and playing really well. The good thing about her is that she works so hard outside of just normal practice.”
Harmon’s work goes far beyond coaching strokes and strategy. He and assistant Christy Lynch also ride sidecar with student-athletes as they transition to adulthood.
They help players fit. In class. In singles. In doubles.
For Flores, the transition from Fort Dodge, Iowa, to Georgia Tech hasn’t been an ace.
“Definitely, just getting used to everything outside of tennis. School and life, and obviously adjusting to the team and playing college tennis is so intense all the time,” Flores said. “It’s been really difficult to adjust, but each week I have the opportunity to get better. I look at it that way.”
It hasn’t been easy for Harmon, either.
You need six players for a college tennis match, and his roster has seven student-athletes. Already this winter/spring, Harmon and Lynch have had to work around sophomores Kenya Jones and Nami Otsuka and Jarlskog missing time due to illness.
Flores is 16-9 in doubles action, playing primarily with Otsuka (11-5), but with Jarlskog out for the Texas trip, Harmon shifted the lineup. It wasn’t the first time – the Jackets have deployed 12 different doubles combinations dating back to the fall.
“Because Ida was out, Johnnise [Renaud] and Nami played together at Texas Tech and played really well and they played really well last year, so we need to leave that team together,” he said.
Piecing together doubles teams appears to be more about art than science.
Flores and Jarlskog, who before last weekend only competed together one time, in the very first tournament of the fall, matched up because they complement each other’s playing style.
“It’s a feel thing. It’s just a feel for what you think might work at the time,” Harmon explained.
The Jackets’ juggling worked well at North Carolina, where every Tar Heel player is ranked among the nation’s top 125 players. For Tech, Paige Hourigan is ranked No. 22 and Jarlskog No. 115.
Yet Tech won again. The Jackets clinched when they moved to a 4-0 lead after Hourigan topped No. 20 Alle Sanford 6-3, 6-2 at No. 1 singles, Otsuka beat No. 47 Jessie Aney 6-2, 6-4 at No. 5, and Jones passed No. 27 Sara Daavettila 6-3, 6-3 at No. 3.
Weather forced Saturday’s match indoors, yet Tech proved victorious.
“Everyone on UNC’s team is ranked. If you don’t come ready to play, they’ll beat you 7-0 quick,” Harmon said.
“We were fortunate to play extremely well in doubles, and win the doubles point. Paige, Kenya and Nami just played extremely well.
“They’re the reigning indoor national champions, so to be able to go in and play as well as we did . . . I feel like we’re making progress. We still have things to work on.”
There is plenty of work ahead.
After playing host to Notre Dame (10-6, 2-4) Friday, Tech will travel to play Sunday at No. 34 Syracuse (12-3 4-3), where the Orange always play indoors.
Next week, No. 4 Duke (14-1, 6-0) and No. 19 Wake Forest (15-5, 4-3) visit. Then, the Jackets will play three straight on the road at Pittsburgh (6-8, 0-7), No. 50 Boston College (10-6, 2-5) and Virginia Tech (11-5, 2-5) before closing at home against Clemson (8-9, 1-5).
Then, the ACCs — where UNC edged Tech 4-3 last spring — and the NCAA Tournament, where the Jackets are likely to host a regional.
Flores agrees that there is work to be done by her and her teammates.
“We’re sort of up and down too much sometimes,” she said. “Sometimes, we’re missing someone. That kind of hurts us. Little things like that we have to deal with. Hopefully, we can continue what we’re doing and we want to improve every week.”