#TGW: A Season to Remember

June 7, 2018

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By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word

   There is more-than-usual change coming to Georgia Tech’s women’s tennis, yet Rodney Harmon doesn’t seem to be sweating over the fact that three of the top four players from his NCAA semifinalist squad are finished playing for the Yellow Jackets.

The head coach of one of Tech’s top two athletic programs in 2017-18 -- along with golf -- is not one to worry about the future, nor fret about the past. He’s hyper-focused on the present.

That is as big a reason as any that Tech finds itself among the very best programs in the nation with three straight trips at least to the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament, a No. 5 final ranking and a 25-6 record on the heels of last year’s mark of 27-5.

He just keeps plowing, or coaching. Harmon doesn’t leave himself much time to obsess over any psycho-analysis of his squad . . . not yours, and not his. He does his inspection in real time, and does not upon his findings dwell past immediate decisions.

So, perhaps not surprisingly, when asked if his perspective or disappointment has evolved or dissolved in the nearly three weeks since the Jackets fell 4-2 to No. 2 Vanderbilt in the NCAAs, when the Jackets were unable to overcome losing the doubles point for the third NCAA match in a row, Harmon said, “No. Not really.”

There is plenty to be learned when you happen to pin Harmon down and ask him, or force him, to reflect. Tech rose to a ranking as high as No. 2, yet apparently his sixth season on The Flats was no run in the sun. Despite all the success, Harmon labeled it as “one of the more difficult seasons we’ve had.”

“You see what’s happening . . . because you’re evaluating it all the way,” Harmon said. “We had three players out at different times with illness, and just overall, we faced adversity.”

Even so, the Jackets often made tennis look easy.

Using the final women’s rankings after then-No. 15 Stanford upset Vanderbilt to win the NCAA title, the Jackets in the spring semester banked wins over No. 3 North Carolina, No. 4 Duke, No. 7 Georgia, No. 9 Texas Tech, No. 10 UCLA, No. 11 Florida, No. 13 Pepperdine, No. 16 Florida State, No. 17 Miami, No. 21 Michigan, No. 23 Virginia, No. 27 Wake Forest and No. 28 Oregon.

“It was the toughest schedule we ever played,” Harmon said. “Of the [seven other] teams in the quarterfinals, we had wins over five. But did we play the way I wanted to play all the time? No, but it’s hard because you can’t play perfect all the time . . . You gain such confidence by winning.”

Dropping the doubles point against Vanderbilt was too much -- finally -- to overcome.

A few of the Jackets didn’t have it that day.

Hourigan fell in straight sets to Vandy’s Astra Sharma, who finished the season No. 1, Jones lost her fourth straight NCAA match, and wins by Jarlskog and Otsuka were not enough.

If you give Harmon time to reflect, he will allow that the doubles point was big.

“It was a killer because we had played so well in doubles, but in the NCAAs we just did not play well. I don’t know what happened,” he said. “You can’t give up the doubles point every day and expect to get to the finish line. We did against Pepperdine and UCLA, but you can’t expect to do that every day.”

Still, Tech student-athletes achieved at a supreme rate.

Graduates Paige Hourigan and Johnnise Renaud and rising junior Kenya Jones earned All-ACC honors, and Hourigan and Jones landed ITA All-America recognition.

The Jackets were 12-2 in the ACC, winning for the second year in a row at North Carolina, where they’re the only visiting team to win in five years.

Jarlskog went 28-8, mostly at No. 4 singles, and won her last 13 matches -- not counting unfinished matches.

Rising junior Nami Otsuka went 29-9, mostly at No. 5, and won all five of her NCAA matches.

Hourigan and Jones were 27-8 in doubles, finished the season ranked No. 1 as a duo, and reached the round of 16 in the NCAAs.

Jones lost her first match of the spring semester, and then won 16 of her next 17.

For all the energy that Harmon and assistant coach Christy Lynch spend on development vs. winning matches, they’re going to have to spend more next season.

Here are some of the reasons why:

Hourigan, who graduated, finished No. 2 in program history in doubles wins with 107, trailing only Kristi Miller (North) and her 110 from 2005-’08. The New Zealander is also No. 7 in program history with 93 singles wins. Her final NCAA singles ranking was No. 12.

Renaud, another graduate, leaves as the No. 4 doubles winner (99) and No. 10 in singles wins (91).
Jarlskog, who finished No. 95, is transferring to Florida to play for coach Roland Thornqvist, a fellow Swede who has guided the Gators to four national titles.

There are for the Jackets reasons to be optimistic, starting with the expected influx of international players Valeriya Deminova (Russia), Dalila Said (Egypt) and Baijing Lin (China/Australia). They add up to a recruiting class considered to be top 10 nationally.

And there might be another player.

“Most likely, we will bring another player in in January,” Harmon said. “With tennis, you don’t necessarily graduate on a schedule.”

Harmon is optimistic about his team’s future, and its chemistry.

Jones, Otsuka, rising sophomore Victoria Flores and rising junior Nadia Gizdova are parts of the reasons why.
And there is Otsuka, the local lady (Duluth/Norcross High School) with a 59-17 singles record, chiefly at No. 5 singles.

“I would say Nami is really the one that exhibited leadership. She has the ability to work well with all of the girls,” Harmon said. “She has her moments like everybody else. What she’s good at, though, is figuring that out and letting it go and moving on.

“Nami I noticed the most. I feel like she really took a step forward, and she has leadership . . . she realizes what’s good for the team. What you see under pressure is what you get.”