Florida an obstacle for Tech, Georgia in NCAAs

Staff writer Ken Sugiura contributed to this article.

Georgia and Georgia Tech enter this weekend’s NCAA women’s tennis tournament with similar challenges. Sooner or later, they both figure they’ll have to get past the Florida Gators, ranked No. 1 by ITA.

Coach Jeff Wallace’s Bulldogs (21-3) will make their 27th consecutive appearance in the Division I college tennis national tournament. Georgia enters this weekend’s Athens Regional regional as the No. 4 seed, with a No. 4 national ranking. The Bulldogs face Winthrop at noon Saturday. If victorious, they will take on the winner of Oklahoma (13-9) versus Arizona State (16-5) at 2 p.m. Sunday.

There’s little reason to suspect they won’t be in Champaign, Ill., for the national championships next week.

“Our goals have been the same, and we’ve been living up to most of our goals this year and doing a great job,” said Wallace, who is in his 28th season at the helm of the UGA program. “They’re eager and they’re hungry and they’re looking forward to it. They’ve worked extremely hard in the weight room and in their conditioning and in tennis, so we’ve seen a lot of improvement in a lot of our players’ games. They know how to fight, and they do it the Bulldog way.”

Meanwhile, the 23rd-ranked Yellow Jackets (14-9) are in the Gainesville (Fla.) Regional. They open against Yale (17-3) at 10 a.m. Saturday.

It’s a tough draw for Tech’s first-year coach Rodney Harmon. His team likely will get top-seeded Florida in the second round.

The Bulldogs would just as soon see the Jackets take care of business this weekend. Two of the Bulldogs’ three losses this season were to Florida. Georgia lost 4-1 on March 15 in Gainesville in their regular-season match and 4-0 on April 21 in the SEC tournament championship. Georgia is now 3-11 against Florida in SEC tournament finals, 6-11 in the league tournament and 15-44 overall.

And if the Bulldogs are going to claim a third NCAA national championship, they likely will have to get by the Gators again. As the No. 4 and No. 1 seeds, respectively, they could meet in the semifinals.

But Georgia doesn’t see Florida as an insurmountable mountain. This season’s match scores are a bit misleading. At the SEC tournament, the Bulldogs won four of the six first sets in singles and dropped the doubles point only after their national-No. 1-ranked doubles team of Kate Fuller and Sylvia Garcia went down 7-2 in a tiebreaker.

Georgia’s only other loss this season was to then-No. 2-ranked UCLA in the finals of the ITA National Indoor Championships. The Bulldogs also beat No. 3-ranked Texas A&M this season in College Station. So it’s a high-caliber team.

“Where we’ve tripped up, we’ve shared that load,” Wallace said. “That’s what makes us such a great team. In other words, there’s not any one spot where we keep getting beat, and we need to get better there. Everybody’s clinched matches for us, and everybody’s lost in certain matches. And so for me that’s exciting. There’s not a glaring spot where we’re not able to get it done.”

That’s quite an accomplishment for a team that features a lineup of three freshmen (Mia King, Ayaka Okuno and Garcia), a sophomore (Lauren Herring) and two juniors (Maho Kawase and Fuller). Herring ranks fifth in the nation and is entered in the singles draw.

Tech is similarly constructed, with freshmen at the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 singles spots. One of those, Kendal Woodard, has won nine consecutive matches at No. 2 singles and was named All-ACC.

The Jackets relish the chance of measuring themselves against the Gators.

“Especially for our freshmen, it would be a phenomenal opportunity to play them,” said Harmon, who succeeded Bryan Shelton, the men’s coach at Florida. “But obviously we have a big match to play Saturday. We’re going to have to come out and play well and see if we can get that opportunity.”

Neither team is going in with a lack of confidence.

“I think it’s very possible,” Georgia’s Fuller said of winning it all. “Those matches we lost were very close. It just takes three singles matches and a doubles point or four points, so everybody’s got to be fighting for every single point and not be looking around for a teammate to step up. Everybody’s got to step up at one time.

“I think we can do anything.”

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