By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
As the last gray days of winter pass, the 11th-ranked Georgia Tech women’s tennis team is antsy, eager to get outdoors under the sun and excited about jumping into the heart of the schedule.
The Yellow Jackets rolled to 7-0 wins last Saturday over Chattanooga and Georgia Southern in the Bill Moore Tennis Center at the Ken Byers Tennis Complex. Those were the very last tune-ups before a grinder.
Friday, they’ll play a dual match at No. 13 Georgia, and Sunday the Jackets (8-2) will open ACC action by playing host to No. 36 Florida State.
While the matches last weekend were valuable, having gone to the ITA National Indoor Championships before that and taking two losses might’ve better helped prepare Tech for the rigors of a loaded conference.
Tech beat No. 9 UCLA 4-2 last month to punch a ticket to the ITAs for the first time in a few years, and followed that with a 7-0 win over now-No.24 Tennessee.
Then, they ran into then-No. 8 Cal (now No. 18) and then-No. 11 Auburn (now No. 8), dropping both matches around a win over now-No. 19 Ole Miss.
For an eight-member team that is 50 percent freshmen, the trip to New Haven, Conn., was an eye-opener.
There’s not much more room for surprise, beginning with the Bulldogs Friday. They were ranked No. 3 nationally before Monday’s latest poll.
“It’s on,” said head coach Rodney Harmon. “I think playing ITAs gave us a clear picture of some things we need to improve and work on and get better at, and we came back and we went to work.”
The freshman thing is working out well.
For a variety of reasons, newcomers Kenya Jones (15-8), Nadia Gizdova (13-6) and Nami Otsuka (12-7) have, dating back to the fall, played more matches than all other Jackets. They’re 1-2-3 on the team in singles wins. Otsuka is ranked No. 102 nationally.
Luca Fabian is 3-5 in singles, and 5-5 in doubles.
The youngsters still sit in the back seat most of the time.
Junior Johnnise Renaud (9-4) typically holds down the No. 1 or No. 2 singles spot, and she’ll continue to be considered a threat in the ACC. Plus, junior Rasheeda McAdoo (11-6) is ranked No. 71 nationally.
Together they’re the nation’s No. 7-ranked doubles team with a record of 10-0.
That’s a good word, “together.” Renaud feels that the way the four freshmen have blended in with her, McAdoo, junior Paige Hourigan (9-5) and senior Alexa Anton-Ohlmayer (4-4) has everything to do with the Jackets’ nice start.
“Everyone’s adjusting well,” Renaud said. “There’s no complaining about anything. Even though we thought we were going to play outdoors [last] weekend, no one complained about coming inside. I feel like everyone’s attitude about the season is going well.”
Harmon has options.
Hourigan and Jones are 8-1 together in doubles, ranking No. 30 nationally, and every Tech player is .500 or better in doubles no matter who they play with.
Georgia doesn’t have a doubles tandem ranked in the top 60.
Jones feels better going into the meat of Tech’s schedule than at the beginning.
“I’m way more comfortable,” she explained. “At the beginning of the season, at least for fall, my very first match I was so nervous, shanking balls all over the place. And then, our first home match . . . I was pretty nervous; I’m not going to lie.
“My coaches helped me out. On changeovers, they just told me to calm down, take deep breathes, just play your game. [Last Saturday], I wasn’t nervous at all.”
It will be 10 years in May since the Georgia Tech women won the NCAA tennis title, the only NCAA championship in school history (football titles are not awarded by the NCAA).
There is much about this squad that reminds of that one, as the Jackets are diverse. Tech started the dual season 4-4 that spring, falling 5-2 at Georgia and 4-3 at Clemson in the ACC opener to hit .500.
“Four crappy losses . . . things that were preventative,” Whitney McCray recently recalled of that season.
She said preventative, not preventable. Think about that.
Then, Tech won 21 straight – including the ITA Indoors championship – and then the whole thing.
Maybe the Jackets’ eye opener came a little later this time, albeit in the same event that sent Tech on a mission in 2007.
“I think it was an eye-opener for everyone,” Renaud said of the ITAs. “I guess just being there with the top teams . . . it kind of told us what we really need to do to compete with top teams and win.”
Harmon can live with that notion. It’s all about steady progress as the Jackets get ready to dive into a conference that includes No. 3 North Carolina, No. 16 NC State, No. 17 Duke, No. 29 Wake Forest, No. 36 FSU, No. 41 Notre Dame, No. 44 Virginia Tech, No. 49 Louisville and No. 50 Virginia.
The UNC, NC State, Duke and Wake matches will be on the road.
After playing Georgia, the Jackets will have only one more non-conference match, against No. 32 Northwestern.
“We worked [last week] on a lot of things that the girls need to make improvement on,” Harmon said. “[Last] weekend was good in that we got an opportunity to work on some things that we saw against some really good teams that we know we’re going to have to do better.
“It’s going to be an opportunity to get better. Ultimately, it all has to equal good tennis in May . . . the finish line is pretty important. If you’ve done a sloppy job during the season, you’ll have a sloppy finish. If you don’t do the work, you can’t get mad at anybody but the mirror.”