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#TGW: Youth Will Be Served (And Volleyed)

Youth Will Be Served (And Volleyed)
Four freshman helped GT Women’s Tennis reload during the Fall
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word

The Georgia Tech women’s tennis program is one of the strongest in the nation. The 17 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances — the last four under head coach Rodney Harmon, with a Sweet 16 berth last season — speak to that.

This fall season showed that Tech should expect to remain in the upper echelon and possibly improve their standing this spring and springs to come.

Despite having to replace 50 percent of the roster, following the graduation of senior leaders, Megan Kurey, Kendal Woodard and Natasha Prokhnevska, and the transfer of junior Alexis Prokopuik, the Jackets showed that they should be just fine, unleashing freshmen Kenya Jones, Nadia Gizdova, Nami Otsuka and Luca Fabian. The quartet succeeded in getting its feet wet in college tennis and expect to contribute in the spring, while pushing seniors Rasheeda McAdoo and Alexa Anton-Ohlmeyer and juniors Paige Hourigan and Johnnise Renaud.

“The fall was what I thought it was going to be like,” said Harmon, who begins the spring with a 65-39 record, 36-17 in ACC play. “Obviously, we had some really good results this fall and some places we didn’t do as well as I would have liked — not as much in terms of results but just from the things in their games we’ve been working on. We saw toward the end of the semester that we started picking it up in a lot of the things we’d been working on on the court. Hopefully we can get that going for next semester.”

Jones (9-5) and Gizdova (7-4) certainly were. They led the team in singles wins, as Tech had a 36-33 overall record. In doubles, the team of Gizdova and Otsuka went 6-3, the six wins the most of any team, as Tech combos went 16-9.

“The freshmen are really great players,” said Anton-Ohlmeyer, who also played her final fall. “They can rip the ball. They’re not afraid to win. They’re not afraid to make a mark their freshman year and I think that’s super-exciting.”

Jones was especially impressive.

“The thing about Kenya is her eye-hand coordination. It’s really off the charts,” Harmon said. “Put that together with the fact that she’s a really good competitor and she’s pretty fearless on the court. I was just impressed with the way she played in singles and doubles. There are things in her we’ve been working on as well and I think she’s going to come out next semester playing a bit better than she did this semester.”

McAdoo, whose 6-5 fall included a 6-3, 6-7 (4-7), 6-1 victory over Georgia’s Kennedy Shaffer in the ITA Southeast Regionals, also impressed Harmon.

“I think it was a big confidence boost for me,” said McAdoo of the win over Shaffer. “It really helped me get into my game and it really helped me just get my rhythm back.”

The fall began positively in the Hall of Fame/ITA Grass Court Invitational, Sept. 16-18, in Newport, Rhode Island. Playing on grass, a slick surface, and through accompanying tricky winds created adventurous conditions but the Jackets went a combined 11-7 in singles (9-3 the first two days). They broke even in six doubles matches, with each doubles pairing (McAdoo/Jones, Anton-Ohlmeyer/Fabian and Otsuka/Gizdova) winning one match.

The following weekend, Tech held court at the Bulldog Classic in Athens, going a combined 11-7 in singles — beating Texas Tech, 4-3 in singles on Friday and 6-0 on Saturday — and winning five of six doubles matches. Tech battled Georgia the final day, and while the Jackets fell, 4-1, they hung with the Bulldogs, as four of the matches went three sets.

The tournament tested the mettle of the young Jackets and provided a lesson that typified the entire fall.

“It set the bar for how well we need to play in the spring, and we need to do even better, but I think it was a good experience to have before going into the spring,” said Gizdova. “I’m definitely happiest on how I improved on a lot of aspects of my game. I definitely got better as the semester went on.”

The Jackets finished the fall strong. In the ITA Southeast Regionals in Gainesville, Fla., Oct. 21-23, McAdoo reached the quarterfinals and Jones reached the semifinals of the backdraw, while the team of Hourigan and McAdoo got to the quarterfinals.

Then, in the final event of the fall, The Roberta Allison Invite in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Oct. 28 and 29, Jones got to the finals of singles, before having to withdraw with an injury, while Gizdova and Otsuka won doubles, topping Mississippi State’s team of Lisa Marie Rioux and Sara Lizariturry, 8-5, in the finals.

Having the freshman team heading into the spring is a positive. The doubles team of Gizdova and Otsuka pleasantly surprised Harmon.

“It is a funny team because you see them separately and you wouldn’t necessarily think they would be a very good team, their game styles are so much alike,” said Harmon. “But the chemistry between the girls, they get along so well and they support each other so well on the court. They have the ability to hit some pretty hard shots at the opponent and they put a lot of pressure on the opponent. I was pleasantly surprised.”

Harmon sees the individual pieces of the team coming together, starting with a good final season for Anton-Ohlmeyer.

“Alexa hits the ball beautifully. It’s so easy and so smooth,” said Harmon. “A lot for her is where she is mentally and I think this fall, mentally she was in a good place. She fought her tail off in a ton of matches and played off some really good wins.”

Hourigan, who has been All-ACC and qualified for NCAAs in singles and doubles each of her first two seasons, had an up-and-down fall according to Harmon, but promises a strong spring, armed with a new racket.

“She made an equipment change (in the fall), a racket and string change, and I think she struggled with knowing exactly what the racket would do in pressure situations,” he said. “But toward the end of the semester she started to look more comfortable and happy with the racket and was playing very well. I think the new racket is going to help her a lot.

“She also was really focused on her fitness,” he added. “I think she’s faster and stronger than she was last year. Hopefully that will translate to more wins this year.”

A more confident McAdoo, a healthy Renaud, an even more fit Hourigan, a mentally tougher Anton-Ohlmeyer and a quartet of poised freshmen eager to push the upperclassmen and each other for court time, ideally will translate to big things in the spring.

“Looking into the fall season, there were a lot of unknowns because we had a very, very young team,” said Anton-Ohlmeyer. “It’s four new girls and four returners. The personalities seem to match up pretty well. So everyone is ready to compete for the spring.”

“Last year we made Sweet 16 and that is ultimately what our goal is to reach this year,” said Harmon. “We’d like to, obviously, win our conference then get to the Sweet 16 because once you get to the Sweet 16 whoever’s playing the best has a shot to win. But you’ve got to get to the Sweet 16 so that’s what we’re trying to do.”

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