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#TGW: Man Down

March 26, 2014

By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word

Kenny Thorne barely qualifies for the middle-age exemption that allows the use of memory as an explanation for losing something, but the Georgia Tech’s men’s tennis coach did not lose a thing last Friday even as the Yellow Jackets showed up at a match at Boston College looking as if they’d forgotten a player.

Tech played with just five racquets (there are six singles spots, and three doubles spots), and yet beat the Eagles 6-1.

For Thorne, it was, he thinks, a first.

Never in his first 15.5 years as the Jackets coach had he deployed a short-handed squad. Never had he forfeited a doubles match and a singles match before play even began for sake of not having enough players to run onto the court.

At least that’s what he thinks. The stress of player injuries and roster machinations may have torqued Thorne in several ways, so who can be sure?

“I’ve played with six, but never with five,” Thorne said. “At the beginning of the season, when we lost a player, it is not a fun situation to be in; you’ve got to trust the guys . . . the toughest part about it is making sure that we get better and we train the best we can.”

The Jackets began the fall beat up with multiple players opting not to play in order to let their bodies heal rather than play through injuries whose rehabilitation would have been slowed by playing. In tennis, the ACC schedule is in the spring, and that is always the No. 1 priority.

Compounding matters, Vikram Hundal and his family decided shortly before the fall season that he would seek a transfer; Hundal remains in school, but left the program in the autumn.

Junior Colin Edwards left the squad in pursuit of academic excellence, although he’s returned as something of a junior stop-gap. Thorne asked him to come back, but he was absent for the Boston College match because while away from the team he had committed to a mission.

Anish Sharma, who played in the fall, is still around but also is away from competitive tennis for sake of academic matters. All of these guys have GPAs well above 3.0.

“I want it noted that for our team, it’s literally that they want to maybe graduate with honors from here,” the coach said. “It’s not that they’re trying just to be eligible; they want to get their GPAs high.”

Matters are not only academic.

Casey Kay, the Georgia transfer, has long struggled with persnickety hips.

There came a time earlier this spring, not long into the second semester, when he, his family, Thorne and Tech staffers decided enough was enough.

Kay is doing pre-hab therapy in preparation for hip surgery – likely on both – to correct a problem(s) that even if he quit playing tennis were likely to bother him for the rest of his life.

The surgery(ies) are not simple as the process typically requires intentionally dislocating the hip joint and removing excess bone which has caused problems.

“It’s been bothering him for quite a few years. He has a deformity on his bone where it’s pressing on bone and impinging his hip,” Thorne said. “The left side is bad. The right is same makeup as left, and he might have to do both three weeks apart.

“They’re still working on the process. It could be up to a six-month rehab. He played through, and it got worse and worse.”

With Edwards back in the mix (other than missing the B.C. match) practice situations are in some ways more efficient.

“Practicing is tougher when there are fewer healthy bodies, although there is a benefit,” Thorne said. “A lot of coaches love having small numbers in order to get done what you can in practice with a lot of individual attention.

“I would say the practice issue comes into how hard you work, and how much you can push them. If you’ve got guys who are pretty sore, you start [worrying] about pushing the guys through workouts because you need them in matches.”

The young Jackets (Tech has no seniors, and Eduardo Segura and Edwards are juniors) have become more a band of brothers.

“Eddie is a good emotional guy. He absolutely gets up, and brings energy. [Sophomore] Nathan [Rakitt] does as well, and Cole [Fiegel] steps up as a freshman,” Thorne said. “I think you get tight as a team.

“You band together that much more. Everybody is absolutely depending on each other. It’s more intense. There’s not a lot of looking around. Now, they look on their own court. We don’t have the margin that we’ve had in the past.”

The Jackets (7-7, 1-3) are in a remarkably unforgiving conference as more than half the team routinely are ranked nationally. Good is coming of this, however.

Fiegel (10-1 this spring) and fellow freshman Carlos Benito have benefitted from stiffer match competition than they might have faced.

Rather than jog his memory trying to remember if he’s ever gone into dual competition with but five players, Thorne probably would rather look ahead.

Here’s a big part of the reason why: the cavalry is on the way.

When last ranked college recruiting classes in the fall, the Jackets were No. 12 in the nation as five-star prospects Christopher Eubanks, Michael Kay and Daniel Yun are preparing to roll into the mix next fall.

And Thorne and assistant Derek Schwandt are not finished recruiting. An international prospect could push this class over the top.

“We have four coming in, and we’re recruiting one to two more,” Thorne said. “We’re looking at four, maybe six, and they can all help us immediately.”

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