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Thursday April 18, 2013Shelton Making Headway as Gators Head to SEC Tournament

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Only a couple doors separate their offices at the Ring Tennis Complex, but Florida coach Bryan Shelton knows all too well of the chasm between his UF men’s program and Roland Thornqvist’s runaway train of a women’s team.

Thornqvist knows, too, hence the constant encouragement.

“He tells me everyday, ‘Hang in there,” that we’ll get there,” Shelton said. “It’s great advice.”

It’s easy to pitch such advice, but in no way is it insincere.

It was Thornqvist who lobbied Jeremy Foley on Shelton’s behalf when UF went looking for a men’s tennis coach last spring. He pointed the Gators athletic director toward Shelton, then the women’s coach at Georgia Tech, and Foley was floored by the candidate during interview process.

And based on what Thornqvist has seen from his former foe over the years -- in 2007 Shelton led the Yellow Jackets to the only NCAA championship of any sport in Tech’s history -- and what he’s watched take place at the facility the last 11 months, Thornqvist is convinced Gators everywhere will be floored by Shelton’s achievements down the road.

“I’m amazed at what I see from him,” Thornqvist said. “It’s just a matter of time.”

In the interim, though, no one is forgetting the present.

The 14th-ranked Gators (14-9) just finished the regular season Sunday in a four-way tie for third in the Southeastern Conference, good enough for the No. 3 seed in the league tournament, which opened Wednesday in Oxford, Miss. UF has a bye through Thursday’s matches and will face either South Carolina (17-9) and LSU (15-10) on Friday.

A snapshot of where Florida currently sits may appear awfully similar to where the Gators have sat at in the recent past heading into the postseason, what with fourth-place SEC finishes in four of the last five seasons.

UF, though, stood at 3-4 in conference play a few weeks back, but won four of its final five SEC matches, with victories over a trio of top-15 teams, including No. 7 Ole Miss and No. 8 Kentucky.

“So, we can play, and we can compete with the best teams in the country, no doubt,” Shelton said. “It’s just that we haven’t done it consistently throughout the year. To do it consistently you have to prepare the right way; physically, mentally and emotionally. You’ve got to put it all out there every single time on the court and we haven’t done that at practice this year.”

Shelton inherited a group of 10 players brought in by former coach Andy Jackson. One, Spencer Newman, transferred to Michigan last summer and two others, Andrew Butz and Tripper Carleton quit in the fall. That left seven.

One of the byproducts of change is ... well ... change.

“There was some resistance at times from guys when it came to doing things differently and, frankly, that presented some challenges in this group,” Shelton said. “There have been some tug of wars, at times.”

Newman eventually decided to return to UF in January, but because his transfer clock had started Newman had to sit out the season. That left Shelton with seven eligible players. When Billy Federhofer, at No. 3 singles, injured his ankle in late March, the Gators were down to six players for six spots the last six matches.
No wiggle room, little margin for error.

But better focus.

“Just over the last three or four weeks, there’s a lot more clarity in the direction we need to continue to go in,” Shelton said.

The Gators took that clarity (and a three-match winning streak) to the league tournament site.

“I think we’re playing really well right now -- and it’s a good time to be playing well,” said junior Michael Alford, part of a team that's anxious to gauge its progress against either LSU or South Carolina, both of which defeated the Gators earlier in the season. “In tennis, there’s always going to be ups and downs, but we’re glad our ups are coming at the end of the season when everything really counts.”

The progress is an encouraging sign for Shelton, who will roll a star-studded, four-player freshmen class (that’s nearly half a team of his own hand-picked recruits) into the program for the 2013-14 season. And he’s not done signing guys, yet.

It’s all part of -- how did Thornqvist put it? -- hanging in there.

“You just wait. Next year’s team is going to be wicked good,” Thornqvist said. “But the cool thing about what’s going on now is that Bryan is not even concerned about that. He’s not punting. To me, that’s the mark of a quality coach. He’s not going through the motions because the ball didn’t bounce his way some this year. He’s on a path, staying the course and delivering the same message.”

Shelton hopes the trail he is blazing leads to a program along the lines of his friend and colleague down the hallway.

“I see how they go about their business every day and you learn from that,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot this season and I’ve seen great examples in all the sports at the University of Florida and the way they conduct themselves and go about the process of getting better. Hopefully, some of it continues to rub off on us.”


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