The Storm Before The Bigger Storm
No. 6 GT prepped for visits to NC State, Duke to close regular season
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
All season long Georgia Tech women’s tennis has been building for the postseason.
Finally, the end is in sight.
One weekend and two matches are all that stand between the team and their pursuit of postseason greatness.
But it’s a rugged pair of matches awaiting the No. 6 Yellow Jackets (22-2, 12-0).
It starts tonight at 5 p.m. with a visit to Raleigh, N.C., to take on No. 28 North Carolina State (17-8, 6-6) at J.W. Isenhour Tennis Complex. The weekend concludes with a high noon showdown against No. 15 Duke (17-4, 11-1) in Durham, at Ambler Tennis Stadium on Sunday.
It’s a big weekend — albeit a typical one in the ACC — but actually is more of a stepping stone.
“It’s going to be a battle on Friday and Sunday. We’re preparing for tough matches. I think it’s what makes you stronger,” said head coach Rodney Harmon. “It’s what allows you to go into the ACC Tournament and to the NCAA Regionals and be a team that can win if you can survive it.
“I think the weekend is important but honestly we’re really trying to prepare for the ACC Tournament as much as we are anything,” Harmon added. “We’ve got the ACC Tournament coming right behind it and then Regionals behind that so we’re trying to get progressively better as we go along. This is another chance to see where we are.”
They know they are in undisputed possession of first place in the ACC, but Duke and North Carolina, which knocked Duke from the ranks of the unbeaten on Wednesday, 5-2, sit right behind them at 11-1.
While a perfect record and an ACC regular-season title are nice shiny objects, the Jackets are doing their best to ignore them and stay focused on what’s right in front of them.
“We don’t think any match is going to be easy,” said junior Paige Hourigan, who at 20-7 is one of four 20-match winners on the Jackets — she’s also riding a 12-match doubles-unbeaten streak with partner, freshman Kenya Jones (11-0, with one unfinished). “We’re just going to go out and play our best and work and try to get better. The ultimate goal is ACCs, so we’re just looking to play our best tennis for next week. I’m so excited. The season’s gone by so fast and we’re doing so well. I can’t wait for ACCs, honestly.”
That doesn’t mean she’s not locked in on the Wolfpack and Blue Devils. That’s wise, as they are a combined 22-3 at home (NC State, 12-3, Duke, 10-0).
Then, again, the Jackets are on a roll of their own. They’ve won 16-straight matches — their last defeat came Feb. 12, to Auburn, in New Haven, Conn., at the ITA National Team Indoors — and they are 7-0 on the road this season. Among those road wins are 4-3 victories at then-No. 13 Georgia, only Tech’s second win in Athens in program history, and at then-No. 4 North Carolina, at Cone-Kenfield Tennis Center snapping UNC’s 50-match home win streak and 36-match overall streak.
That ability to win away from home has the Jackets playing with confidence and belief in each other.
“It definitely shows that we can play both at home and away,” said Hourigan. “We’re just a hard, fighting, competing team. If we do that and show up at every match then it’s hard to beat us.”
“It gives me a lot of confidence. It makes me have a lot of faith in my team and myself,” said Jones, who along with the 22-2 doubles record with Hourigan (11-1 in ACC play) is 26-10 overall and 9-2 in conference singles. “That’s a big part of tennis, having confidence in your game and your shots. It’s definitely helped having those big wins under our belt. We’ll go play our hearts out and see how it goes.”
Harmon points to leadership from the upperclassmen as a key element to being road warriors.
“The thing for us is our leadership on the team has been so strong and I think that’s what’s helped us on the road,” said Harmon. “We have senior co-captains that have done a great job, we have Johnnise (Renaud) and Paige, who are both juniors, so they really lead. They’re able to alert our freshmen as to what to expect and our freshmen aren’t really freshmen anymore because they’ve played enough. We’ve had opportunities to play in some pretty tough environments with some really tough teams. It’s just a situation where you just have to be ready and expect it’s going to be tough. If you always expect that then you’re never surprised and if it isn’t then you just caught a break that day.”
Harmon expects tough sledding this weekend, but can point to his teams’ success against both the Wolfpack and Blue Devils — they’re a combined 8-0 (3-0 vs. NCSU, 5-0 vs Duke).
“NC State’s No. 1 team (senior Martina Frantova and freshman Anna Rogers) is ranked 13 in the country. So it’s going to be a battle,” he said. “We have to be ready to go because they play really good doubles and they have some good singles players as well. It’s going to be rough in front of that crowd. It will start at 5 but we’ll be going under the lights and I’m sure it’s going to be loud and nasty. The last time we played them it was tough so we have to be ready to go.”
Harmon expects Duke to be similarly challenging. The safest assumption is that the final score is going to be 4-3, as the last four matches between Georgia Tech and Duke have ended that way. Tech has won them all.
“It’s going to be a battle with them. It always is,” he said. “It’s tough over there. It looks like with the weather conditions we may be indoors, so that adds another little twist to it. But it’s going to be a battle. We look forward to the opportunity to play them.”
Some of the luster has been taken off Sunday, Duke’s loss Wednesday eliminated the possibility of a winner-take-all match of unbeatens for the ACC crown, but there is still plenty to play for. Tech still hopes for a perfect season, the regular-season title, and, most important, momentum heading into the ACCs.
Hourigan insists that’s all the match ever was to her.
“The last couple of years our team has been the underdog and we’ve come out on top and I think this year we are definitely, I feel like the team to win. So we have a little bit of pressure on our shoulders but we’re just looking to get better every match,” she said. “Our team’s doing so well, the team is bonding so awesome, we’re playing very well together so I’m not worried about it. It’s just another match.”
A more relaxed mindset could be important, as Tech will have only three days to mentally regroup before the start of ACCs. The Jackets don’t see an issue with the short turnaround.
“Mentally, yeah, but we feel good right now. We’re not fatigued,” she said. “We’ve been getting our mind right. So I feel like back-to-back is fine. We need to have good matches going into ACCs so we’re just excited. It’s honestly a really good opportunity for us.”
“NC State is a good team. We’re just trying to keep our record going, stay focused and stay in routine. Then, when it comes to Duke, hopefully we can get it, stay undefeated in-conference this season,” said Jones. “It starts at practice, we all give 100 percent, in workouts, everything. It just kind of flows when you’re giving it your all and everyone’s putting in the same amount of work, it’s definitely contagious and you can’t help but have good outcomes.”