May 19, 2017
By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
– Strange as it might seem, the very best memory for Georgia Tech’s best team ever came in Athens, Ga., 10 years ago come May, when the Yellow Jackets won the 2007 NCAA women’s tennis championship – the school’s only NCAA title.
When you hear Kristi North (nee Miller) wax nostalgic, tears well. She was on The Flats weeks ago, cheering the Jackets as the women opened the spring season in January with a win over Penn. Yet one of the top players in school history missed a match a couple days later against UCLA.
“I was playing my own ALTA match,” the Atlanta attorney said.
Cut her some slack. North was there for the biggest meeting ever against the Bruins, winning her match when the Jackets beat UCLA 4-2 to win the 2007 NCAA title. Sometimes, in her mind’s eye, she’s still playing for Tech.
A certain memory never gets old for North, who goes back in time to that evening at Georgia’s Henry Feild Stadium and the men’s team screaming from the stands like blood-thirsty vigilantes . . .
“That night was … can’t compare …” said North, a six-time All-American. “It’s still such a huge accomplishment the way we represented Georgia Tech, and I just remember the stands full in Athens of Georgia Tech fans. You can’t do better than that.”
Now married to former Tech men’s player David North, she has pictures in her home commemorating Tech’s lone national title – the NCAA does not hand out football titles — as do seven former teammates and head coach Bryan Shelton.
They’ll gather in May, all in one place for the first time in 10 years – since they were honored by former president George W. Bush in the White House shortly after winning it all. Even South African Tarryn Rudman, who lives in England, is expected to attend.
“I really just think back on that as one of the best memories of my life,” said Amanda McDowell, who was a freshman that season. “Those girls were like sisters to me.”
The Jackets were not exactly upset winners; they were ranked in the top 10 pretty much all year. Yet, the season was not without hiccups.
“We had a girl that ended up at No. 3 (Craddock) that was ready after two days [in the fall] to transfer, or start a pro career,” Shelton recalled. “Trying to talk her and her parents out of that was a struggle. We struggled all semester. For whatever reason, she came back after Christmas and said, ‘Whatever you want from me, you got.
“Amanda McDowell wasn’t in lineup at the beginning of the season, and ended up a catalyst for our lineup. She was mowing through people at No. 4.”
The Jackets hit the ground running after months of running over each other. They won the ITA National Indoors Championship in early February, snapping the No. 1-ranked Stanford Cardinal’s NCAA-record 89-match winning streak in the semifinals before beating Notre Dame, 4-2, in the title match.
“We were just practicing and playing against each other, just beating each other up,” said Allison Silverio, who was a senior captain and is now the head women’s coach at Oregon. “Instead of blows with a fist, we were doing it with our rackets. When we got to national indoors, we were ready to beat up someone else.”
Then, they opened the spring dual match regular season 4-4, falling 5-2 at Georgia and 4-3 at Clemson in the ACC opener to hit .500.
“Four crappy losses … things that were preventative,” recalled Whitney McCray, who was a senior doubles specialist.
Seniors Silverio and Rudman and juniors North and McCray worked on their games, and building a family.
“We started off really shaky, we had three new freshmen coming in [McDowell, Flower and Craddock], and Kristi and I were trying to find our way as leaders, and we had Ally,” McCray said. “We were trying to make the team complete.”
Silverio, a captain, said the Jackets’ heads swelled.
“For us . . . we thought we made it [winning the Indoors],” she recalled. “That was one of the goals we had set out to accomplish. For a time, I think we became a little complacent, and it showed up.
“I think it was a great lesson for us. We needed to feel some of that pain and suffering. I really believe it was part of the process.”
The Jackets won every match after that, 21 straight.
Beating Duke for the first time in 30 years was a big deal, and the Jackets went on to win the second of three straight ACC titles and streaked into the NCAAs.
Beyond talent – a half dozen of the eight players on the team were nationally ranked at one point or another that season — they were mean.
These ladies would beat the dog out of you if they wanted the mutt.
“We had two of the most competitive kids in Christy Striplin and Kirsten Flower. On the court, in the gym, it was a competition between those two and that raised the competitive fight,” Shelton said. “These two, I remember we were doing a workout in the gym, strength training, agility work and stuff like that, and one day at the end of the session the strength coach had them do a wall set.
“We had a contest to see who could go the furthest. Kirsten’s legs were shaking uncontrollably, and she’s angry and screaming across the room . . . ‘Just give up!’ Those moments where you are pushed to the limit, where you don’t give in, that was something that described us in 2007.”
Tech lost the doubles point against UCLA.
Shelton was stressed.
His players were in charge.
“Some of them went to the bathroom, and I thought about some of the things I wanted to say,” he said. “Kristi kept telling everybody what we were going to do, and how we were not going to give up, and they put their hands together.
“I didn’t say anything. That’s the least coaching I’ve ever done. I didn’t say much, clapped a little bit, and walked around, but they had what they needed. As a coach, that’s most gratifying . . . it’s cemented in my brain.”
McDowell, who would go on to win the NCAA singles title a year later, blitzed her opponent on the way to her team-high 35th win of the season, and then nearly freaked after giving Tech a 1-1 tie.
“I remember losing the doubles point and it didn’t even phase us,” she said. “It was all of us talking to each other and motivating each other. We knew we were going to do it.
“I wanted to close it out quickly so we could tie up the score. Then, I had the cool opportunity to watch my teammates. It was super nerve-wracking.”
The Jackets had a grip on everything. Bonded with grit as glue, they worked.
“There can be drama. Some personalities don’t click. We all clicked, and we all wanted each other to succeed,” said Craddock, who’s now a pharmaceutical representative in Kansas City. “We all wanted the best for each other, but we knew that we had to compete against each other.
“We had one day a week that was match play. They were as intense as regular matches.”
Craddock fell on court No. 3, and Miller rallied the Jackets to another tie with a 6-3, 7-6 (3) win on court No. 1 over No. 15-ranked Riza Zalameda.
Then, she dug in as a fan.
“The whole Georgia Tech men’s tennis team was in the first row. I’ll never forget how loud they were and the pom-poms, so much energy,” North said. “I have a picture of my mom there.
“Their faces, my mom’s mouth is wide open and she has her finger out in front of the boys. She typically would do a crossword puzzle. To see her living it up like that … it was so fun to share with my parents after all they did for me.”
On court No. 5, sophomore Christy Lynch (nee Striplin), who’s now married and is a Georgia Tech assistant coach, came from behind for a 4-6, 6-1, 6-2 win to move the Jackets to the edge of a championship.
That was nothing new.
“We played Cal in the semis, and we were down 3-2, and she got down 3-2 in the third, and Christy refused to lose,” McCray said. “I was watching. All I did was play doubles, and yell my butt off. I felt like I was the juice to the team.”
Lynch said, “I just remember thinking, ‘I have to get this match.’ So, after that match, we finished so late that nothing was open but IHOP and I remember us all eating pancakes . . . and I remember celebrating in the parking lot.”
In custom-decorated bright gold-yellow shoes on a Tuesday night, Rudman toiled on court No. 6 and Silverio on court No. 2 – each for the last time as collegians.
“We thought it created team spirit,” Lynch said of the fancy footwear. “You take your shoe laces out first, get newspaper, put the shoes on newspaper, and they usually take all night to dry. We’d have to touch up with spray paint.”
Silverio, ranked No. 93, had played even through two sets, winning the first 7-5 against No. 40 Tracy Lin, and dropping the second, 5-7.
“It was a night match at that point,” Lynch said. “It was the perfect set up . . . We obviously saw [the men’s team] every day at practice. They were in the front row with signs.
“It helps when you’re a player to make eye contact with someone that you know, someone who has supported you. They were really supportive.”
Silverio rolled in the third, 6-1. Tech wins.
“It was a beautiful story, a beautiful just everything,” she recalled. “A beautiful experience. Being a senior on the team, you just can’t write it better. I was truly blessed and honored. I remember on that final point just looking up and then seeing my teammates run to me and saying to myself, ‘We did it.’
“Every workout, practice, tough times, conversations, we did it. That’s something that can never be taken away from our program and our team.”
The Jackets will re-live it all together in May, at an event Miller is working with the Georgia Tech Athletic Association to organize. That will be better than photos.
“I have a picture of that moment in my house, and I think of it daily,” Craddock said. “I still remember we were superstitious about what we were going to wear to eat at Waffle House.”
These players – all of them — stay in touch, mostly by a group text message thread, and from time to time they even visit Shelton and his family in Gainesville, Fla. Generally, they connect with Rudman through Facebook.
The coach, who played at Tech before coaching the Jackets, can hardly wait to get the gang together again.
“Absolutely,” Shelton said. “I don’t have any memories professionally better than that. It was the biggest highlight for me. When you achieve something like that, it kind of ties you together for eternity.”