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Upset Bid Falls Back at Tech's Feet

May 20, 2011

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

– I loathe writing about Georgia Tech teams losing, and I could have avoided that if I’d chosen instead to again bang the keyboard about the golf team holding onto first place in its NCAA golf regional.

But the women’s tennis team lost in the NCAA championships Friday at Stanford and without even being there I know it was torture. Hell, it was torture from here.

The No. 16 Yellow Jackets (15-11), one of the last two or three teams to win the right to host one of 16 regionals last week, lost to No. 3 Duke (25-4). An upset hung in the balance like a ball ticking the net, popping up and dripping over.

Except the ball flopped back the other way and fell at Tech’s feet.

I couldn’t keep real-time tabs on the match, which began at noon local. My twin daughters are “graduating” from elementary school and most festivities were Friday. First, a ceremony at the school. Later, I helped decorate for the dance. (When I moved from elementary school to junior high, all I got was a kick in the pants.)

Let me say I LOVE doing for my kids, and since this is not a salaried position . . .

In between, I checked into Marcus Dittmer’s Twitter feed from time to time as I ran around looking for graduation gifts (I have until Tuesday, the last day of school, so hold your critiques as it is critical that I find just the right bikes).

Silly as it is to go there, I love Tech’s tennis coaches, and not in that way. This way: Bryan Shelton and Kenny Thorne are EXACTLY what it is supposed to be about.

They’re competitive as Hades, yet mindful of their mission statement. That is not only to bust your rump to win, but also to foster the growth of young people verging away from, but not yet entirely beyond, youth.

They’re a different kind of parent.

It would be absolutely impossible to find two greater shepherds. Don’t waste your time trying. I want to be Kenny Thorne or Bryan Shelton. Or I want my kids to play for them.

That’s a problem; my son (age 14) abandoned a pretty successful tennis career (including an ALTA city championship) to chase baseball and football, and the girls (age 12) have shown no real interest in tennis. They’re big-time, if under-sized, softballers, and like basketball, too.

In my periodic checking of Marcus’ Twitter feeds, Tech won the doubles point, which was a very good sign. The Jackets were 15-0 in matches where they’d won the doubles point. Plus, in almost no time at all after that Jillian O’Neill won at No. 1 singles to give the Jackets take a 2-0 lead.

That meant Duke, which had beaten Tech twice in the regular season on the way to winning the ACC title and entering the NCAA tournament ranked No. 3 nationally, would have to win four of the last five singles matches.

As Shelton said, “It was exactly as we drew it up.”

I left the house feeling slightly less than a nervous wreck as I set out to hang banners, move trash cans, the ridiculous dragon mascot (covered with recyclable goods) at my girls’ school, and to try – and fail – to untangle all the “2011” streamer/stringer that was supposed to fly overhead.

Between visits to four bicycle stores and Wal-Marts, etc., I checked in occasionally. Part of me hates that. I’ve spent many days over the years checking in by whatever means available on this, that, or the other. It affects days.

I keep telling myself that it’s a positive reflection of the fact that I can find extra-curricular, non-material, things to care about.

Eventually, Duke tied the match at 3. The match flopped a few times to get there.

Elizabeth Kilborn trampled Duke’s Mary Clayton 6-2 in the first set at No. 6 singles, but lost the next two sets to drop a match.

At No. 4 singles, Lynn Blau fell 6-2 in the first set but won the next two to win her match over the nation’s No. 72-ranked player. Blau is unranked.

Lynn Blau . . . she’s a battler. She’s 5-foot, nothing. She wears her heart on her sleeve,” the Tech coach said. “She’s not 100 percent healthy. She didn’t wait for her opponent to give it to her; she went out and made it happen.

“She’s making it happen in the classroom . . . she’s an example of what a student-athlete is supposed to be.”

Digression alert: that is the deal, right there.

Blau’s funky lower leg problem didn’t cause a problem, from what I gather, and without even being there, I know for a fact Shelton was coaching his rump off. Five of his nine players this season are/were newcomers. That group included two transfers (O’Neill and Caroline Lilley), two freshmen and a walk-on.

This was not one of Shelton’s most talented teams in his 12 years as Tech’s women’s coach. Yet, for the 12th time he took his team to the NCAA tournament and came within a whisker of a large uprising.

It came down to No. 3 singles, where Tech’s Viet Ha Ngo won the first set. She dropped the second in overwhelming fashion and although she put up a fight at points in the third, she lost.

That was it.

Beyond Blau’s injury situation, which I know nothing about, Shelton juggled his doubles teams a boatload this season.

There’s a funny thing about Shelton and the way he goes about his business.

Every year, at least from my vantage point, he’s piecing together a roster. Not exactly piece-meal, but after the Jackets won the NCAA title a few years ago, at least two very talented players transferred away. He’s also received very prominent transfers into his program, like O’Neill and Lilley.

Unlike some of the nation’s snooty programs, he doesn’t routinely score three of the absolute tip-top recruits every year.

But he coaches the bejeebers out of his girls.

Tech loses only one player, barring unforeseen circumstances (which are commonplace in tennis/pro tennis), in No. 5 singles player Sasha Krupina.

She fell Friday.

That’s not what sank the Jackets Friday.

Ngo wasn’t the only Tech player to win the first set and trip.

At No. 6 singles, Elizabeth Kilborn won her first set against No. 83 Mary Clayton 6-2, and then dropped the next two sets.

All six Duke singles players are ranked. Tech’s top three singles players were ranked.

See what I’m getting at?

At No. 2, Caroline Lilley lost the first set 7-5 and it ruined her. She lost 6-0 in the second to drop her match.

As a team, the Jackets – who lost 5-2 at Duke on April 10 – battled.

They lost Friday, though, and I hate that.

But a great Tech moment was made. The men’s team, which lost Thursday to two-time defending national champion USC, was loud and proud.

“For our men’s team to stick around after a tough loss yesterday, that says a lot about our program,” Shelton said. “For all our fans to fly all this way . . . Tim and Robin Norris, they’re just great Georgia Tech people.

“I just want to say thank you. It’s been fun to see our men’s team thrive, and beat Georgia . . . my hat’s off to coach Thorne and [assistant] Aljosa [Piric].”

My hat’s off to the Tech tennis teams, both of them . . . in a big, big way. You will NEVER find two greater examples of coaches doing it the right way, and athletes making the most of their abilities.

Look, the ACC is loaded. Of the 16 teams in the NCAA “Championships” six are from the Atlantic Coast Conference. As good as Duke is, the Blue Devils didn’t even make the ACC final. UNC beat FSU. Is it any wonder that the UNC coach was offering Duke scouting tips to Shelton? Thoughts to stingdaily@gmail.com.

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