Geoff McDonald is now in his 23rd year as Vanderbilt women's tennis coach. The 58 year old McDonald is the longest tenured coach at Vanderbilt, and his career has been a storied one. Final Fours, Elite Eights, Sweet 16s are all common place for McDonald's teams. He has also led his program to the penultimate prize in women's college tennis; the 2015 national championship. The team has reached the NCAA's every year McDonald has coached it. He has taken his teams to 17 Sweet 16's, 2 Elite Eights, 2 Final Fours, and the national championship 2 years ago. Geoff gets it done with regularity.
This year's team got out of the gates a little slower, but has moved up to No.5 in the country by virtue of their two SEC victories last weekend, one @ Tennessee, and the other, our first road victory over Georgia since 2005. Georgia is ranked 13th now and UT is 16th, so huge victories for the team that pushed their record to 7-4. But by beating two highly ranked teams, we staked our claim as a contender for SEC and national title possibilities. Next up, VU plays host to No. 33 Mississippi State at the Currey Tennis Center in at Vanderbilt tomorrow, Friday at 3 PM CT.
Senior Sydney Campbell was named SEC player of the week for her stellar performance last weekend @ Tennessee and @ Georgia. Sydney, now ranked 8th nationally, defeated Sadie Hammond of UT, 6-4, 6-2 last Friday, then the Franklin, TN. native followed that up on Sunday by upsetting No. 15 Eleni Christofi of Georgia 6-3,6-4. Sydney was ranked No. 16 at the time of last Sunday's match at UGA. She also won both of her doubles matches.
Freshman Emma Kurtz was named SEC freshman of the week. Emma, an Atlanta native, knocked off No. 111 ranked player Maria Gonzales to clinch the road victory over Georgia. Emma has a 6-2 record this season.
So the team is back on schedule. But Geoff's a great one, and he's only concerned about his young women getting better every day. Here's my conversation with Geoff.
DW: A lot of Sweet 16's
GM: That's the toughest hurdle to get over from 16 to 8. A lot of it is your draw. If you match up poorly with a team that could be the end of the season. We've gotten over that hump the last couple of years and it really, really feels good.
DW: Two thousand fifteen was special and last year was special making the Final Four. It seems so hard to repeat in sports. What makes it so hard?
GM: When you win, there's a sense of inevitability. I don't know how it happens. And this past year (2016), we battled expectations all year. And it was the same 5 (players). It's trying to get so many people in the same place psychologically, physically. Getting them on the same page and knowing what to do is a tall order.
DW: What made the 2015 team so effective?
GM: This time 2 years ago, we were 4-4. All 4 of our losses were 4-3. We literally lost like someone hitting a 3 pointer at the buzzer over and over again. So there was a feeling of like, 'we can't catch a break.'. But it was fine to lose early. And I actually believe in that as a coach. You almost don't want to be undefeated and you gotta learn what goes on into close matches when you don't come through, so you can come through. Honestly, the team on their own, bought in and did a lot of stuff that makes a good team. They did extra workouts, and when they did extra workouts, they improved. And that might sound obvious, but a lot of times players do a drill at 80%. The improvement on the team was really electric. We had some kids on that team that kept improving. So when human beings are improving at a sport, it's like watching a rocket take off.
DW: Back to this year's group, how do you like this group?
GM: I love'em,. They're good kids, they're very athletic. They're a much better outdoor team than indoor. We got back from an indoor tournament and we took a couple of lumps, won a couple. We're playing teams in their best environment (indoors), battling them and if we took a loss, we're learning really well from it. Again, it's a long year. We don't emphasize the record as much as individual improvement. So they're not afraid of the winning and losing thing.
DW: I know you've got Astra (Sharma, No.5 in the country), Sydney, and Georgina Sellyn back this year. Who are your key girls?
GM: Our freshmen have been just great. Christina Rosca and Emma Kurtz. Georgina Sellyn is a 5th year senior. She's our first graduate student playing. She was SEC scholar-athlete of the year last year. They're all contributing and we've got good depth. The neat thing for me is just how athletic they are. They can run, jump, sprint. They're just pure athletes.
DW: How's Astra doing?
GM: She's 5th in the country. But we don't want to get caught up in the rankings, as in I'm ranked 5 and she's ranked 20. Don't worry about it. Don't get into the expectations. But she's a wonderful young person, they all are. They're special young people.
DW: Sydney and Astra are ranked highly, you've got some heavyweights.
GM: We've never had two ranked in the top 8, so I give them a lot of credit. Their rising to their senior years really well. Astra is a redshirt junior.
DW: Will Astra leave after this year to try the pro route?
GM: I think she's going to come back. She loves it here. She'll do a lot of pro tours as an amateur. Playing in the pros in tennis is not like baseball, it's up to you. It's expensive. The training and the practice aren't as good as they are in college quite frankly.
DW: Who's in the pros of your girls now and how're they doing?
GM: Frances Altick is out playing. She's injured a bit, but when she's playing, she's climbing up the rankings. It's a pretty tough way to go. The injuries are tough. But this summer I look for her to move up to the top 500 in the world. That doesn't sound great, but it's like somebody in the NFL, the NBA or professional baseball. You're at the level, you're pretty darned good.
DW: Top 500?
GM: Top 500. She's got a shot to get into the top 200 because she's such an incredible worker and competitor that she can get up to playing in grand slams. The climb is tough.
DW: Do you see her future as pretty bright?
GM: Yeah, it's a tough way to go. She's got the biggest heart I've ever coached. The problem on the tour is she's gotta find her best surface and her best place to play. Because there are a lot of big strong athletes who can hit it off a fast court, so she may do her best in Europe on red clay. Europe and South America.
DW: How's Sydney (Campbell) doing?
GM: She's doing well. She's probably one of the best ball strikers I've ever seen. She hits a pro ball. Eight in the country ain't shabby. She's pretty darn good. I look for her to really come into her own outside.
DW: Seems like your girls are better on the outdoor courts.
GM: Absolutely, not even close.
DW: Why is that?
GM: They're smart. When they're playing outside, you've got sun and wind and the courts tend not to be as fast, so it's a little more of a technical game where inside is much more about straight up power. We'll have power, but we don't play what I call smashmouth tennis. We play aggressively, but we're much more about breaking people down rather than just overpowering them.
DW: The schedule looks pretty challenging. How do you feel about the competition in the SEC and nationally?
GM: It's the best year I've seen in the SEC in a long time, almost 3 decades. It's the deepest year I've ever seen. Florida won the national indoors, Georgia was in the semis, we had 6 teams out of the 15 qualifiers. We'll get 13 out of 14 that'll make the NCAA's. I saw at the SEC office that top to bottom, women's tennis is the most competitive sport in the SEC.
DW: Is Missouri the team that's not going to get there?
GM: They're not there yet. But the rest of the conference is amazing.
DW: How does the national scene look?
GM: North Carolina is quite good. The ACC has some good teams. Michigan and Ohio State out of the Big Ten are very good. Always the Pac-12, UCLA, USC are also really, really good. Stanford too.
***Note: Stanford won it all last year, and beat VU in the semis of the Final Four. That was their 17th national championship.
DW: The coaching at Vanderbilt is so incredible right now. Do you talk to the other coaches about what it takes to be successful in college sports?
GM: Absolutely. You're right, it's an incredible group of coaches. I'm really impressed with all of them. I've really gotten to know Derek Mason quite well and the job he does is superb. And part of that is knowing this league. Coming into this league and beating Mississippi and Tennessee in your last two games, wow! And really, they were in a score of beating Auburn. I just think he's a really good coach. We've got a staff that any Vanderbilt fan can be proud of. Not just the skill of the coaching, but the ethics and character of the coaches is superb.
DW: What do you and Coach Mason talk about when you get together?
GM: I really like his practices. He plays music and they get a lot done. It's different. He'll play music that they like, but it has a certain rhythm. It's not too fast. He's got his voice going. When my players are developing a lot, they'll say, 'I heard your voice in my head.' Obviously, you're talking to them a lot. Darren Ambrose in (women's) soccer I've gotten to know well. The coaches, we talk about training, something we've heard about that's working really well. To coach here and to factor in the academic demands on these students, you've gotta really be knowledgable, flexible, you've gotta flex with the kids. They're not just playing a sport, they're at an elite school. I've got faculty now who say our undergraduates now are like graduate students 10 years ago. Our kids (on his team) have had a 3.5 GPA the last two years playing at this level.
DW: So 2015 and 2016, 3.5's?
GM: Yeah, and this fall.
DW: I know you don't look ahead, but there's kind of a big picture in there, so what'll it take to be special again this year?
GM: Just continual learning and improvement. We're a lot better than we were four weeks ago. So teams can go on that trajectory or get stale, or they can get worse. And we've got a good history of getting better in the spring. And if we do, we might not be in the top 4 and 5 in March, but I wouldn't want to play us in April and May. And the wonderful thing is, here we're done with finals as we go into the postseason, and some schools are in class and finals. So that is great. You can see the players all of a sudden drop all that stress and the next thing you know they're out there practicing and they're happier. They're done with school and they can really focus on their tennis and their level comes up.
DW: That's what Coach Corbin says about baseball. You finish with finals in May and then you can focus on baseball.
GM: Yes, and that's one coach I didn't mention, but he's the best coach I've ever been around. He's just an amazing coach. Tim Corbin's excellence affects the athletic department in a positive way.
DW: Getting better every day is your approach like Corbin's. Have you always been that way?
GM: I used to not be that way when I was younger. I was too involved in the results. And you get older and, A. you realize you don't need to focus on winning, you need to teach them the fundamentals of how to perform at a high level. You take the stress and the high expectations out of it and you make the expectations more about effort and attitude, and if the other team is more of a results-oriented team you've got an advantage. And honestly, a lot of the teams we play have that mindset and I get it. But we won in 2015 and we didn't talk about winning the national championship once. Not once, not even the day of the match. We followed the routine of the match like a Friday afternoon playing South Carolina. We went over the details, here's what you have to do, you have the wind out of the southwest, that was it. And they just went out and played tennis. I'm a real believer in that, and Tim Corbin is too. We're lucky to have him here.
DW: Have you gotten to get to know Bryce Drew?
GM: A little bit. He's just had to hit the floor flying with everything he's doing. I've been impressed with some of our games. But I'm old enough to remember the shot he hit to beat Ole Miss (NCAA tournament 1998). But I think, what a pedigree and background. It's neat to have a guy who's grown up in the game, been in the NBA, and I think in time he's going to be a helluva coach here.
DW: Sounds like you like this group?
GM: I do, and I've got some more years, so we're going to see if we can another championship.