Thursday begins probably the biggest weekend of the academic year for Georgia Tech athletics. The women’s tennis team will play Cal at 9 a.m. at the University of Georgia in the Sweet 16. It’s the seventh time in the past eight years that Tech has reached the final 16.
The golf team begins NCAA regional tournament play at Oklahoma, hoping to advance through to the NCAA championships. The Jackets are the No. 2 seed in the Southwest regional. Beginning in 1989, when the NCAA instituted the regional format, Tech has made the regional round 21 out of 23 years and advanced to the national tournament 20 of those times.
The softball team, fresh off its third ACC championship in four years, begins NCAA regional tournament play Friday afternoon against South Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The Jackets have made the tournament every year starting in 2002, the last six under coach Sharon Perkins.
The weekend is also testament to, at least from a pure results perspective, Tech’s three best coaches. Consider this: Since Perkins was hired for the 2006-07 academic year, Tech teams have competed for 101 ACC championships (the baseball team will play Miami this weekend to determine if it will make the eight-team tournament field).
In that time, Perkins, women’s tennis coach Bryan Shelton and golf coach Bruce Heppler are a combined 10 for 18, with Heppler contributing five. Tech’s other teams are 1-for-83, the lone championship provided by the football team (which was later vacated).
That doesn’t give them their complete due, either. Shelton has been at Tech since the 2000 season and has made the NCAA tournament every year and won the 2007 national title, making him the only coach in school history to win an NCAA team title. (The football titles were not awarded by the NCAA.) He also won ACC titles in 2005 and 2006, the first two league titles in Tech women’s tennis history. In Irina Falconi, a Shelton recruit who reached the third round of the U.S. Open last September, Tech has its best women’s professional tennis player ever.
In the past 12 years, Tech has finished in the top 10 of the final Golfweek rankings 10 times and has won nine ACC titles in the past 14 seasons. Heppler’s teams have also had a perfect NCAA academic progress rate (1,000) since the NCAA began charting it in 2004. (Steve Hummer wrote an excellent story on Heppler in this past Sunday’s paper.)
Perkins was named ACC coach of the year 2009-2011, when the Jackets won ACC regular-season titles. The softball team’s APR in 2004-05 was 957, one of the lowest on campus. In 2009-10, the last year for which data is available, it was 996, one of the highest.
Defining a coach by ACC titles isn’t entirely fair. For instance, MaChelle Joseph’s women’s basketball team has made steady progress but has yet to win an ACC title. Danny Hall’s record over 19 seasons – two College World Series, 16 NCAA berths, three ACC tournament titles, 97 players drafted – is hard to find fault with. The top of most ACC sports is fairly static; breaking the stranglehold one or two or three schools have on a sport can be close to impossible. From a facilities standpoint, the track and cross country teams face an uphill battle with no indoor track or on-campus cross country course.
That said, the tennis facilities were evidently in such a state that they’re being replaced. The golf team lacks an on-campus course, a challenge Heppler solved by raising money for memberships at two local clubs. Until 2009, the softball team practiced and played on a substandard off-campus field.
It remains to be seen if this is the spring that Heppler’s team knocks down the wall and wins an NCAA title, if Perkins can guide the Jackets to their first College World Series or if Shelton can lead his team back to a national title.
Regardless, their status at Tech appears secure and, for the time being, unchallenged.
Ken Sugiura, Georgia Tech blog