Success breeds success, and 59 year old Vanderbilt women's tennis coach Geoff McDonald has built his program into a powerhouse in college tennis. Mcdonald, now entering his 24th season as the longest tenured coach at Vanderbilt, has taken his team to the NCAA Tournament every year he's coached in Nashville. Entering this season, McDonald has taken his teams to 18 Sweet 16's, 3 Elite Eights, 3 Final Fours and the national championship in 2015. Those numbers are stunning, but the humble and highly talented veteran coach is not stopping now. He's got another tremendous team this season led by amazingly talented and accomplished 5th year senior Astra Sharma and a host of talented underclass women that have a goal of nothing short of a national championship. It's a long road to get there and it's incredibly competitive in women's tennis, both nationally and in the ultra talented SEC, so Geoff takes the Tim Corbin approach to each season and takes it a day at a time. Geoff's axiom is to get better today. His and his ladies relentless work habits and their intense competitiveness are characteristics of exceptional teams. And that's what this Vanderbilt women's tennis team is, they're elite.
The Ladies already have top 10 victories over then No.1 Stanford, 7-0, then top 10 team Baylor, 6-1, back in early February, and a national indoors victory over perennial elite team Florida. Our only loss is to No.2 Pepperdine at the National Indoors after we had defeated Wake Forest and Florida to advance.
This team is focused, electric, and has all the components to be exceptional. They've already shown that they are. We play at No.24 Northwestern tomorrow at 2:30 PM CT, then we're at No.1 North Carolina Sunday at 12 PM CT. After those 2 major tests, we'll navigate the SEC with No.6 Georgia, No.11 South Carolina, No.19 Tennessee, No. 20 Kentucky, No. 26 Auburn, No. 31 Alabama and a host of others in the conference all on the schedule. We are No.7 in the ITA Rankings, the Intercollegiate Rankings, and we are 6-1 overall.
These women are stellar individuals also. Geoff will delve more into that in this upcoming Q&A. Sharma is ranked No.56 in the latest rankings, but that will improve as she played on the professional circuit in the fall and early winter. Junior Fernanda Contreras is ranked 5th in the country, and sophomore Christina Rosca is ranked No. 24. In doubles, Contreras and Sharma are ranked 22nd. But those rankings don't really represent the talent and character of this team. I spoke with Coach McDonald a couple of weeks ago and here's what he had to say about his 2018 group.
DW: Talk about that weekends' victories over Baylor and Stanford?
GM: We played a match the week before and played pretty well, but the improvement from that match to the next week was stunning. I like the way the team approached the Stanford match. You'd have to say that Stanford is the best program in the history of the sport. They've won 17 NCAA titles in 40 years or something and they win it just about every other year. And when we started playing them, I could tell the players were also playing that huge name and tradition and now that's no longer the case. We just went out and saw an opportunity to play a very good team and we played a very tough, hard-nosed brand of tennis. I was very pleased with the competitiveness of our team.
DW: What match was that the week before?
GM: It was the ITA Kickoff weekend. It kicks off the year and it's 15, four team tournaments. And the 15 winners get 15 of the 16 spots at the National Indoor Championship in Madison (Wisconsin). The 16th team is the University of Wisconsin as host. If you win that kickoff weekend, you get a chance to play in the National Championship, and if you don't, you're off for a couple of weeks. Invariably, it's early and pretty intense pressure and we were not expecting to play phenomenal tennis yet. We were a little rusty in the doubles, and didn't do that well, but the past weekend (against Baylor and Stanford) we changed up teams and it went quite well.
DW: And who did you defeat in that tournament?
GM: We beat both Nebraska and Florida State 4-1.
DW: Tell me about the indoors, how that went?
GM: We play the No.1 strength of schedule in the country, so it really prepared us for the season. We historically struggled there, where at times we didn't win a match there. The year we won the NCAA Tournament we were 0-3 at the Indoors. So we use it as a launching pad to get better. But you can improve by winning. You don't have to lose to learn. Our mantra is how can we get better. It's early, we kept it in perspective. I'm a real believer in keeping the perspective relaxed. Intense, but not tense, if that makes sense. It was an early season tournament that made us tougher.
DW: Geoff, there are so many things to like about your team, would you just talk about your players.
GM: I admire them. They're the epitome of student-athletes. They had a 3.6 (GPA) in the fall in pre-Med, Engineering, Neural Science. They're known to be a very fair, sportsmanlike team. They represent our school well. They're tougher than leather. They are gritty competitors and quality people. We had a nice crowd on Sunday for our Stanford match, and people are really starting to appreciate what this team brings. I'm lucky to coach them. They're something.
DW: Astra is not ranked highly yet, but she'll be ranked highly won't she?
GM: Yeah, she'll be ranked. She's got to play a certain number of matches. She's 4-0 (through Stanford match) and she'll break in. She had a really wonderful summer and fall and even into early winter. She went from 980 to 430 in the world on the WTA computer. She won some of the smaller level pro tournaments, and her highlight was winning a tournament in doubles to qualify for the Australian Open. She's coming on. We're lucky to to get to watch her play. She's one of the top 2 or 3 male of female athletes at Vanderbilt. She's something.
DW: Do you expect Astra to be a No.1 player in the country this year?
GM: I'm not a fan of expectations. We're much more about day in day out. It all sounds cliche. Expectations are, if you win it's a relief instead of an accomplishment. In addition to Astra, Fernanda Contreras had the strongest fall in the country and emerged from lower in the lineup to playing Number 1 doubles and Number 2 singles. She's in Engineering. Christina Rosca is pre-Med, and is No.24 in singles. Emma Kurtz is playing well. They're all 3.7, 3.8, 3.9 students.
DW: How are your lower 3?
GM: You've got Emma Kurtz ar 4. Emma's good enough to play 1 or 2. That's the mark of a great team when you can go down the lineup and have many who can play 1 or 2. Summer Dvorak is playing 5 right now, and is ranked top 100 in the country and again one of the more improved players around. And at 6 we have a freshman, Amanda Meyer, who I think could move up in the lineup. She's a dynamite player. Then you have Emily Smith, who was an All American in doubles last year. She'll push to get into the lineup. And we have a freshman walk-on, Laura Gish, who's improving every day. The improvement is contagious, it's infectious. It's like any team here like Corbin's teams. The work ethic is infectious.
DW: Sounds like these ladies have quite a work ethic.
GM: Yeah, it's astonishing how well they do off the court too.
DW: Geoff, I know you're a day to day guy, like Tim Corbin, Derek Mason, Bryce Drew, Scott LImbaugh, and you like to see your players get better every day. I know you're not an expectations coach, but how good can these girls be?
GM: I think we can be very special if they keep their feet on the ground. I'm about to get on the court for the second time today from 3 to 6 with about half of them. So that's rare. A lot of programs don't have that commitment to excellence and getting better every day. And I'm a real believer that good teams are driven by the players. When I'm doing my best job, I drive a van and I pay for meals. Really. Because they're driven. You just teach them and you get out of the way when you need to.
DW: Coach your success in 24 years has been astonishing.
GM: Everybody talks about the special years, but those first years where we were just slogging it out to get to the Sweet 16, those were some special people. I feel lucky to be at this school. It's an incredible place. Nashville has grown. The school just keeps improving in the academic rankings. I can't think of a school that has had greater improvement in terms of the academic rankings. No other school has done what Vanderbilt has done in the last 2 decades. I think we're 14 or 15 in U.S. News and World reports, and when I got here, we were 22. No one has gone up 7. And that's a real tribute to the faculty and leadership. It's good stuff.