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#TGW: Sweet Victory

 

By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word

Walking to the Ken Byers Tennis Complex on Sunday, you knew what was going to happen upon seeing the gold pine straw aside the building. The Yellow Jackets were to roll, and paint their way into the Sweet 16 of the NCAA women’s Tournament.

Or . . . ?

The residue of Georgia Tech’s women’s team members painting their shoes – just out the back door of their home – didn’t seem to carry into their second-round NCAA match against Northwestern, at least not for a while.

As good as they are and have been, the Jackets (27-4) found themselves trailing in doubles action against a team they swept earlier this season.

Paige Hourigan and Kenya Jones, ranked No. 29 nationally, were brushing aside No. 15 Maddie Lipp/Alex Chatt on the way to a 6-1 win on court No. 1, but on the other two courts, Tech was trailing.

On court No. 3, freshmen Nami Otsuka and Luca Fabian were down 0-3 and on court No. 2, junior Johnnise Renaud and senior Rasheeda McAdoo fell behind 1-3.

The doubles point is a fairly big deal in college tennis because, not only is it one toward the four needed for victory, but because of its psychological value.

Otsuka/Fabian dropped their match on court three, and that left it up to Renaud/McAdoo. At that point, they trailed 2-5.

So, with critical thinking and conservative aggression – yes, that’s possible – they turned the steering wheel.

“Play more aggressive, and cut more balls to the middle of the court,” head coach Rodney Harmon said of the strategizing that happens in such moments.

On courts No. 2 and 3, the Jackets struggled playing too many low-percentage/high payoff shots. Harmon calls them “hero shots.”

Renaud went for a high ball near the net, for example, that was clearly going to fall in play behind her in a position where McAdoo would be able to get good string upon it.

She leapt, thrust an awkward racquet skyward on a most beautiful day, and . . . clanked it off the rim. And out of bounds.

As the time for re-calibration came, McAdoo and Renaud coalesced with counsel from Harmon, and the shoe painter deluxe, assistant coach Christy Lynch, a member of Tech’s 2007 national championship team – which started the post-season shoe-painting thing.

“Usually, when we make a lot of mistakes, we try to go a little slower and we start talking to each other more,” McAdoo said.

“Mostly, we’re just trying to pump each other up because when we’re really confident we play better. If we lose a bad point, we’ll slow down.”

As Otsuka/Fabian had fallen, leaving the doubles point to be determined by the match on No. 2, McAdoo and Renaud pulled out their brushes and ditched the shotguns. The goal: keep the ball in play; never mind the notion of passing the Wildcats.

“All I told her was high percentage, let’s play high percentage,” Renaud recalled. “We’re not trying to over-hit, we’re not trying to hit them off the court. We’re just trying to play high-percentage tennis, and we got the result we wanted.”

Yes, they did, winning 7-5 upon all sorts of super-steady tennis, which included fighting off three match points from Northwestern at 5-3 to bring the score to 5-4. After holding serve at 5-5, Renaud gave Tech the go-ahead point with a return blast down the line that gave the Jackets their first lead of the match. And then McAdoo held serve for the 7-5 win.

And then, the Jackets rolled in singles, wiping Northwestern off the NCAA map, 4-0, as freshman Kenya Jones and Nami Otsuka rolled to straight-set wins on courts No. 4 and 5, and Hourigan – a junior from New Zealand – did the same on No. 3.

As the No. 8-seeded Jackets practice this week before playing No. 9 Oklahoma State Friday at 7 p.m. at the University of Georgia’s Dan Magill Tennis Complex, they’ll treasure their reality, and each other.

You should’ve seen the hugs after it was all over Sunday.

There’s something special here, on the court and off, much like there was in 2007, when the Jackets lost the doubles point in the NCAA championship match against UCLA before rallying to beat the Bruins, 4-2, in Henry Feild Stadium.

Harmon’s not over worried about all those mistakes that the Jackets were making early against Northwestern. He’s more onto the corrections made.

“Sometimes, you have those balls that are in the Bermuda Triangle, as I call them, where you don’t know what to do with it,” he said. “At two and three we didn’t play doubles as cleanly as we have been playing.”

That changed.

And the Jackets rolled from the 2-5 down on doubles court No. 2.

So, they’ll keep breaking out that fluorescent footwear. Harmon’s shoes are originals; he bought them at a store: “My daughter calls them highlighters. They were on sale.”

And the women will keep painting, keeping alive a tradition that began in Tech’s drive to its only NCAA championship. Back in Lynch’s day, when her surname was Striplin, they put the shoes on newspaper. But that’s dying. So . . .

“We usually do it before ACCs and NCAAs, usually the night before,” McAdoo said. “We did it out the side door, in the pine straw. Luna [Lynch] usually gets the paint. We all do it together.”

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