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#TGW: The Gauntlet Begins

Feb. 20, 2014

By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word

– Even after all these years as Georgia Tech’s men’s tennis coach – 15 in the books and counting if you want make a line call to a hair’s breadth – Kenny Thorne still gets this feeling, this vibe, in his 16th season in charge.

Each time the No. 42 Yellow Jackets (6-1) verge on kicking off another ACC season, as they will Saturday at No. 38 Florida State (9-2), the former Tech star tingles a bit for days as if he’s met his eventual wife for the first time all over again and knows it.

Perhaps it seems a strange notion to see Thorne smile so hard and speak so enthusiastically as he and his team embark upon a journey that will feature eight Top 25 opponents in coming months, six alone from the ACC.

The man faces a gauntlet with a young team (three freshmen, three sophomores and junior Eduardo Segura). And yet, Kenny Thorne laughs.

Actually, he smiles, leans forward like a kid looking forward to a trip through Disney, and makes it clear that this is what he signed up for and wants.

So. Let’s. Roll.

“Love it. I get [the Buzz] at the beginning of the season, that little feeling, and right before the ACC tournament, right before the ACC season, and right before the NCAA Tournament,” Thorne said. “I love it.”

From the outside looking in, while weighing the possibilities of sanity vs. insanity, it is as least easier now to see why Thorne would be excited.

His team, though staffed with but seven student-athletes, is healthier than in a long while.

Freshman Will Showers, who missed last fall – as did Segura – after undergoing a medical procedure, is back in the mix. After arriving at Tech as one of the top recruits in the Southeast, he’s playing his way toward expectations.

Segura, Nathan Rakitt, Georgia transfer Casey Kay, freshmen Carlos Benito of Spain and Cole Fiegel and sophomore Anish Sharma give Thorne and assistant Derek Schwandt clay to work with on a regular basis.

There figures to be a lot more next season.

“We’re not losing anybody, and we have four guys coming in next year,” Thorne said. “We can’t afford to lose anybody now.”

Indeed. The Jackets are thin, although not like they were in the fall. At times, there were three available players for practice, and Segura could be seen hitting balls while sitting in a chair.

The future needs more bodies to put more butts in the chairs at the Ken Byers Tennis Complex.

ACC expansion will improve men’s tennis even though newcomers Pitt and Syracuse do not have teams. Notre Dame is No. 10, and Louisville is No. 48. Third-ranked Virginia is the defending national champion, although Ohio State upended the Cavaliers recently in the national indoor championships.

Beyond the Wahoos or whatever it is the Virginia folks call themselves, the ACC includes Notre Dame, No. 16 Duke, No. 20 Wake Forest, No. 21 Clemson and No. 23 North Carolina. NC State is No. 27.

“We have [from here on out] one of the toughest schedules, and they’re going to have opportunity after opportunity after opportunity, and . . . I love it,” Thorne said.

Bring it on, fuzzy neon ball, ACC.

“Those are the teams that you play … we see them that much more, you’re that much more familiar with the coaches, you’re kind of hanging out at the same recruiting places,” the coach explained. “You take pride in your conference . . . the ACC has gotten very good.

“You’ve got the ACC doing well in a lot of sports. Louisville coming in next year is not going to hurt the ACC.”

FSU actually figures to be one of the softies the Jackets will encounter. After Tech meets the Seminoles, the next two matches will also be played on foreign soils – at No. 12 Georgia and No. 15 Tennessee.

The Jackets are so fired up about what is on the way that Thorne said the program may deploy “ball kids” for a few future home dates, including Notre Dame’s visit on March 23 to the Ken Byers Tennis Complex.

Get this, though, the Jackets’ fast start to the spring – in which Tech beat South Carolina to knock the Gamecocks from a No. 17 ranking, and lost narrowly to No. 24 Auburn – is as much a concern for the Tech coach as it is something to hang a hat upon.

“Where we’re at right now is, honestly, insufficient data,” Thorne said. “You have to focus on, `Are we getting better? You can win a lot of matches and not get better. You don’t get pats on the back for that. That’s the thing that scares me the most.

“You get wins and show up at practice that next Monday, and are you honestly ready to get better that day? I told the guys the other day, `You don’t stay even; you’re either getting worse or getting better.’ “

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