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#TGW: Dancing in May

By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word

   The big time has arrived, and even though Georgia Tech will deploy three or four freshman Saturday while hosting an NCAA regional at the Ken Byers Tennis Complex, the 8th-ranked Yellow Jackets will absolutely not be scared.

    In a spectacular season, Tech (25-4) has been anchored by, well, everybody.

    Junior Johnnise Renaud (22-5 in dual matches) is ranked No. 36 nationally, senior Rasheeda McAdoo (15-8) is No. 48, and junior Paige Hourigan (19-7) is No. 96.

    The doubles teams of Renaud/McAdoo (17-4) are ranked No. 23, and Hourigan/freshman Kenya Jones (22-2) are No. 29.

     These are not the only reasons the Jackets will go right at Alabama State (13-8, 9-0 SWAC) at 2 p.m.

    Jones (20-7) and fellow freshmen Nami Otsuka (23-2), Luca Fabian (9-2) and Nadia Gizdova (9-5) have all played plenty, and well. Plus, senior Alexa Anton-Ohlmeyer (2-1) mixes in and keeps everybody on track.

    “The freshmen are not freshmen,” said head coach Rodney Harmon. “We played so many big matches. Nerves are different than fear. Nerves just mean you’re ready to go in a match. Fear means you’re completely afraid, and we don’t have any of that.

    “We’re looking to attack, and you can’t really be an attacker if you’re afraid to play.”

    The Jackets are 13-0 at home, where No. 18 Mississippi State (15-8) will meet No. 39 Northwestern (14-11) at 11 a.m. with the winner to play the Tech-Alabama State winner Sunday at 2 p.m. with a trip to the NCAA Tournament, at the University of Georgia, on the line.

   They’ve won big on the road, too, 4-3 at No. 5 Georgia, and 4-3 at No. 4 North Carolina, where the Jackets snapped the Tar Heels’ 50-match home winning streak and 36-match ACC winning streak.

   No. 15 Duke tripped Tech a week later, in Durham, but the Jackets blew past the Blue Devils 4-2 in the ACC semifinals less than a week after that before falling 4-3 to North Carolina in the championship.

   Tech wouldn’t mind another shot at the Tar Heels down the road, but that’s not the focus of the moment. Tennis is, pure and simple. With finals complete, and McAdoo and Anton-Ohlmeyer having graduated, it’s all sport.

    “I feel like our mentality changes, now we can put all of our effort into tennis, like professionals,” said Renaud, who’s won seven consecutive singles matches and in her last seven doubles outings with McAdoo. “Of course, it’s still a little fire in the belly from the loss, but it’s not just ACC anymore. We have other schools from different conferences who are gunning for us.”

    Ten years ago, this month, Georgia Tech’s women’s team won the NCAA title, beating UCLA – in Athens.

    These Jackets are pushing that direction, and loving it.

    Anton-Ohlmeyer came to Tech more than four years ago as one of the top recruits in the nation. Her role on the court has been reduced this year, but as she focused on graduating, the Californian also embraced her captaincy with remarkable purpose and singular effect.

    She showed up for summer camp last year with a to-do list for Harmon, listing ideas she had for the team to foster bonding.

    “I think the chemistry on this team is incredible, and they play for each other,” the coach explained. “Alexa Anton-Ohlmeyer has done a tremendous job, organizing activities and so forth. She’s a lot of the reason why we’ve been as successful as we’ve been.

    “When she speaks, it speaks volumes – more than me saying it. She had outlined things she wanted to do for the team. You knew she went to Georgia Tech because the critical thinking was on display.”

    On the court, the Jackets have done serious work, and they’re determined to do plenty more.

   “During the school year, you’re so focused on school and exams and you’re so stressed out about that. I feel like emotionally you’re freer now and stress free,” said Jones, who has teamed with Hourigan to win 13 consecutive doubles matches.

    “[The loss to North Carolina] kind of helped us re-focus. We were pretty focused to begin with, but it brought to light certain things we need to work on individually and as a team.”

    The Jackets have largely been laser-locked on their tasks.

  The Jackets are very much in the present as the No. 8 seed, and one of 16 programs playing host to regionals this weekend.

    “It’s a nice reward, a big deal because you want to play at home and we’ve played very well at home this year whether we’re indoors or outdoors,” said Harmon, mindful that weather could push matches indoors Saturday. “It’s pretty special . . .

   “We are an aggressive team, and we have a game style and a way that we approach how we play. We’re aggressive baseliners. We look for opportunities to get forward. We try to put pressure on opponents when we can. We just have very clear patterns of how we play. This team has embraced it really, really well.”

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