Sept. 16, 2016
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
The prospect of having to replace three seniors would be enough to give any coach sleepless nights. As would heading into the first match of the fall with a team that’s 50 percent freshmen.
But it’s all’s good to Rodney Harmon, who’s doing just that as he begins his fourth season at the helm of Georgia Tech’s Women’s Tennis Team this weekend when the Yellow Jackets participate in the inaugural Hall of Fame ITA Grass Court Invitational at historic Bill Talbert Stadium, in Newport, Rhode Island against a loaded field that features 2016 NCAA Tournament final four participant California, NCAA Tournament quarterfinalist Oklahoma State, both of whom were knocked out by eventual champion Virginia, and Ivy League challenger Harvard (matches can be seen on The Tennis Channel).
Harmon expected to have his sleep patterns horribly disrupted following the graduation of senior leaders Megan Kurey, Kendal Woodard and Natasha Prokhnevska followed by junior Alexis Prokopuik’s transfer to the University of Washington.
But he’s sleeping like a baby these days — or at least as well as any coach can sleep — after striking gold (and blue-chippers) on the recruiting trail.
It started with the signing three of the nation’s most highly regarded players, Kenya Jones, Nadia Gizdova and Nami Otsuka. Then he found a fourth overseas in Hungarian Luca (pronounced Lucha) Fabian.
Jones was the No. 15 junior player according to Tennis Recruiting Network, fifth in the Southeast and top-ranked player from Tennessee, while Nadia Gizdova was No. 29, third in the Mid-Atlantic and No. 1 in Maryland. Both rated “Blue Chip” prospects. Otsuka, No. 23 nationally, seventh in the Southeast and No. 1 in Georgia, rated five stars. That gave Tech the eighth-ranked recruiting class, third in the ACC (behind North Carolina (#3) and Virginia (#6). A couple of weeks later, Fabian came on board.
“I’m just saying, ‘Thank God,’” said Harmon, with a laugh. “It’s really competitive with recruiting. We compete against Vanderbilt and Duke and North Carolina and Virginia, within our geographic area. Those are some really top schools. We were fortunate to get players who like the city, we were fortunate to get players who like Georgia Tech for the academics, the history with the tennis. They also look at what we’ve been able to do, what we did last year and they want to help build back to where it was a while ago, when Tech was a top-10 team all the time and, obviously, had that year they were No. 1.
“They have to really embrace the fact that they’re going to be challenged and they’re going to also be working in class with some of the brightest people in the country,” he continued. “So it takes a special kind of kid but we’ve been fortunate to be able to get a few of those. The girls get along so well. It’s just so great when you get the right mix of people who will work hard, they have great parents, who have raised them with the right value structure. So it’s good.”
And a good thing, as they comprise half the squad.
The team already returns four strong upperclassmen, three, senior Rasheeda McAdoo and juniors Johnnise Renaude and Paige Hourigan, who ranked in the ITA Preseason Singles top 100, and veteran Alexa Anton-Ohlmeyer.
Renaud, a North Miami, Fla., native, ranked 20th after finishing First-Team All-ACC last season and advancing to the second round in her first NCAA Tournament Singles appearance. Hourigan, a Turakina, New Zealand, native, checks in at No. 23 following Third-Team All-ACC honors in ‘16 and making the NCAAs in Singles and Doubles (with Woodard). McAdoo, a Boca Raton, Fla., native, is 77th after winning a team-high 19 dual matches last season. McAdoo and Hourigan also comprise the 35th-ranked doubles team.
Anton-Ohlmeyer adds experience and versatility from last year’s team that went 17-10 (9-5 in ACC play, a sixth place finish), reached the finals of the ACC Tournament for the fifth time, before falling to Virginia, made its 16th straight NCAA Tournament appearance (advancing past UC Santa Barbara before falling to USC), and ending up No. 20 in final ITA rankings.
Harmon’s biggest worry this weekend may be less on what the powerful opposition could do to his young quartet of college tennis neophytes, and instead, on figuring out which of his four freshmen to play and how to get everyone court time.
“One of the issues is you have to find the right combinations for each side of the court. Who plays well together? We don’t have any specifics yet,” he said. “We’re going to have some stuff ready for this weekend up in Rhode Island but that’s going to be a work in progress the entire Fall, to get ready for January. So we’ll try some different teams.
He sees no need to protect his freshman class.
They’re certainly not afraid. Their biggest fear is what they’re playing on, not who they’re playing against.
“It’s on grass, which is pretty hard. I’ve never played on grass,” said Jones, a Memphis native, who boasts a killer backhand. “I’m kind of nervous but it’s also exciting just to know that we’re part of such an amazing team and to know that our freshman year we’ll be playing. So it’s pretty cool. We’ll be pretty tough I think.”
“I’ve actually never played on grass before so it will be a new experience,” agreed Otsuka, a Norcross, Ga. native, who calls her aggressiveness her best attribute. “Also, I’ve never been to Rhode Island and I’ve never played a college game before, so everything’s a first. Since we’re all experiencing the same things so I think that makes us closer. I think we’re all really motivated since we just finished our junior careers. We’re all ready for the college experience,”
Jones, Otsuka and Gizdova are already as close as student-athletes can be, as they’re roommates. That’s a big deal as far as getting through freshman year in the classroom and away.
“I love my teammates,” said Jones. “It’s pretty cool that I have three other girls going through it with me, getting adjusted. We all get along really well.”
“I think we’ve clicked well from the first time. We enjoy each other’s company so I think it will be good,” said Fabian, a Palhaza, Hungary native, who played with her national team at the European Championships. “I’m really excited. I’ve got a little bit of nerves but the girls all support each other as a team. So I think it will be good. It will be exhilarating but also a little bit nerve wracking.”
Gizdova didn’t sound nervous about the player on the other side of the net never mind who’s sharing her side in doubles.
“I think right now it’s more getting ourselves ready,” said the Columbia, Md., native. “We’re just prepared for each match, having the same mindset, just getting ready, trying to win. We have a good mixture of game styles, which is good to have on the team.”
Gizdova has little doubt that she and her freshman class will contribute right away.
“Definitely. We have four freshmen coming in this year which hasn’t happened in a while,” she said. “So we’ve got some new blood on the team but I’m really excited to see how the season goes.”
Harmon is eager to see how the season plays out and can’t wait to see how his first-years do. He expects them to raise the bar for the entire team and push the upperclassmen.
“All four want to play and they realize there’s six spots and there’s eight people. If you come to Georgia Tech you can do simple math pretty well,” he said, with a laugh. “They realize the reality of how many people get to play vs. how many on a team. We played more lineups than probably any team in the country last year so they also realize that if you’re 7 or 8 you have to be ready to play. They realize it’s going to take eight people for us to make it back to the nationals like we did last year.
“Our girls have different styles of games so you want to see who will match up best,” he added. “Everybody has to be ready to play. We have to have all hands on deck, especially once we start in January.”
He knows they’ve already raised the bar for him as far as next year’s recruiting class.
“We’re actively looking for 2017-2018 now,” he said, adding with a laugh, “It’s going to be a challenge to be able to get two good players as good as the ones that we’ve just brought in. I’m working at it.”