By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
When the NCAA women’s tennis tournament begins Friday at Georgia Tech and at 15 other sites, the Yellow Jackets will be angry, and that’s a good thing if head coach Rodney Harmon has his read right.
Fourth-ranked Tech (21-5, 12-2 ACC) will play host to one of 16 regionals at the Ken Byers Tennis Complex, and the Jackets’ open against Eastern Kentucky (16-8) at 3 p.m. on Friday, and while they’ll be at home for one last weekend for seniors Paige Hourigan and Johnnise Renaud, they apparently won’t be happy.
The Jackets came up short a couple weeks ago against No. 1 North Carolina in the conference semifinals, falling 4-3 for the second straight year in the conference postseason to the Tar Heels after beating them each time in the regular season.
Harmon hopes that propels the Jackets against the Ohio Valley Conference champions. He’s seen anger work before, just a couple years ago, in fact, when Tech felt it earned the right to stage a regional only to be sent to by the NCAA to South Carolina. There, the Jackets upset the Gamecocks to win that regional.
“You don’t want to lose. It just makes you mad,” he said of falling to the Tar Heels. “Two years ago we didn’t get to host, and we were mad. We were like a bunch of mad yellow jackets, and we went to South Carolina . . . and we were on fire.
“You catch the wrong team, whether you’re home or away, and they’re hot and you’re maybe not quite ready and it can be 4-0 before you know it.”
It’s probably better that the Jackets will play their red card at home, where they’re 11-1 this season, the blemish being a 4-3 loss to No. 16 Miami when the lineup was out of whack because of illness in the squad.
That wasn’t the only hurdle the Tech squad has faced. The Jackets have been truly battle tested, as freshmen Ida Jarlskog and Victoria Flores have moved into the lineup to join Hourigan and Renaud and sophomores Kenya Jones and Nami Otsuka and Nadia Gizdova.
Tech beat No. 1 North Carolina — in Chapel Hill — No. 3 Duke — No. 7 Georgia — No. 8 Florida — No. 11 Texas Tech — in Lubbock — and several more talented squads.
They’ve looked across the net at multiple serious challengers, and hopefully that will help this weekend.
Hourigan is ranked No. 14 nationally, Jones No. 60 and Jarlskog No. 125. The doubles team of Hourigan and Jones is ranked No. 1, and the tandem of Jarlskog and Flores is No. 48.
Jarlskog has won eight straight matches, and Jones has won seven of her past nine.
But nothing is given.
Eastern Kentucky was undefeated in the OVC, and then won the conference tournament.
Should the Jackets win that match, they may meet No. 20 Auburn (20-10), which on Friday will first play Big South champion Winthrop.
If Tech is going to advance to the NCAA’s Round of 16 at No. 29, Wake Forest, whom Tech beat 6-1 this spring, the ladies will have to be on points. And what they’ve done already may not mean much.
“It doesn’t matter what you did during the year. It doesn’t matter if you beat Georgia . . . At that moment, it’s great, but the next day you have to figure out how to beat the next great team,” Harmon said. “At the end of the day, what you hope is that you have enough experience and I guess enough accumulated confidence to go into that tournament.
“If you don’t make it to the Sweet 16, it’s a bad year no matter who you beat. We have to be aggressive and try to capture this. No one is going to hand it to you.”
The Tigers might be angry.
A bracketologist would look at their seed and see twisted logic. Beyond the top 16 seeds — which are for the most part awarded based on ranking and the ability of schools to bid for and play host — the remaining teams are generally seeded by bracket science.
That way, the No. 17 team would go to a regional at the site of the No. 16 seed, and the No. 18 team would go to the No. 15 team and so on.
But the NCAA doesn’t always follow formula. There are times when they send teams to the closest host site, regardless of status. That’s how Tech has ended up in recent years at Florida, when the Gators were among the top programs in the nation.
And that’s how Tech was sent to Columbia, S.C., a couple years ago.
That worked out. The Jackets won the regional and advanced to the Round of 16.
Auburn, in theory, should be going to play the No. 13 team, but the Tigers are not going to Northwestern.
They’re coming to Atlanta.
And they might be mad, like the Jackets, although for different reasons.
“Auburn has a great team. They’ve had maybe not the year they wanted, but they’ve had some great wins,” Harmon said. “If you take [anger] as a positive and you come out with the right mindset, and in control, yeah, it’s fine to be mad.
“There’s nothing wrong with being mad. You can’t sulk and pout and act like a child and somebody stole your rattle. You’ve got to go out there and be ready to go. This is the real season now. It’s 0-0. It doesn’t matter what you did before.”