Wednesday October 23, 2013Gators Making Strides in Year Two Under Head Coach Bryan Shelton
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Like any coach entering a new situation, Bryan Shelton knew when he took over the Florida men’s tennis program that change was inevitable.
Some of his players?
Not so much.
“Last year, I felt like I was constantly managing issues that were not related to hitting the tennis ball better,” Shelton said this week. “There was some off-the-court stuff, some attitude and work ethic issues. We were dealing with things that, as a coach, especially at the University of Florida, you don’t want to deal with day in and day out.”
If these sound like pointed words, well, so be it. Shelton doesn’t mind speaking his mind on this topic. The man who won an NCAA championship as women’s coach at Georgia Tech did not come to UF to maintain the status quo of being the eighth, 10th, 12th or 15th best team in the nation. Athletic Director Jeremy Foley didn’t hire him for that, either.
So here it is, the fall of his second season, and Shelton feels much better with the direction the Gators are headed.
“The learning curve has been significant,” he said.
His arrival may have been something of a culture shock to the players he inherited -- athletes oftentimes get comfortable and settle in routines -- but Shelton had a transition phase as well. Remember, this was one of the nation’s most successful women’s coaches -- at Georgia Tech, no less, which usually checks in about 70 percent male -- so the 47-year-old former Atlantic Coast Conference singles champion and touring pro had to do some adjusting of his own.
It’s a little different handling a team of young men.
“The guys just are not as sensitive, so you have to be direct with them. Subtlety is not something that gets you very far. You have to be blunt,” said Shelton, who clearly has no problem doing that. “Every coach is different, but I found out pretty quickly that there had to be a tone and I had to have their attention. They needed to understand that it was a new program. I told them, ‘It’s still the University of Florida, and privileges come with being here, but there were also new sets of responsibilities.”
Mostly, they began and ended with performance across the board; academics, practice, conditioning, being on time and making the right decisions.
Then came the 2013 season.
Shelton’s first UF team finished in a four-way tie for third in the Southeastern Conference, lost in semifinal-play of the league tournament, then was ousted on its home court in a humiliating 4-3 loss to the University of Denver in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
This was what Shelton said in the Denver post-match news conference last May 10, when the Gators, ranked 15th in the country, blew a 3-1 lead to the unranked Pioneers and dropped matches at Nos. 1, 2 and 3 singles.
“It hurts, and I want it to hurt our guys to the point that it motivates them to get better. We’ve got to get better as a team, as a program. We’ve got to do things better so that there’s more margin between us and the teams that we’re playing against. Right now there just wasn’t enough margin for us to get the job done today.”
The last five-plus months have been about creating margin; now and for the future.
His second Gators team includes four players Shelton recruited and signed, each of who was briefed beyond any doubt regarding the expectations that would come with joining the UF program.
Three tournaments into the fall season, freshmen Maxx Lipman, out of Nashville, Tenn., and Elliott Orkin, from Marietta, Ga., have been terrific, with both rookies advancing to the semifinals of last weekend’s ITA Southeast Regional in Atlanta. The team’s other freshman, Fort Myers product Joshua Wardell, has been sidelined with a back injury. The fourth, sophomore Diego Hidalgo, is an international player from Ecuador and will be eligible in January.
With that quartet as the nucleus, plus some bought-in veteran returnees, Shelton believes he has laid the foundation for the program he envisions.
“This is a process that is about working to improve and get better every day; and with that, the ability to endure and to overcome adversity,” Shelton said. “I think it’s clearly in those guys’ minds right now. They understand they’re going to face some hurdles, but they also know they’re here and there’s plenty of opportunity for them. I love the approach every day. The attitude. Winning starts on the practice court. Every day, they’re lacing up their shoes and coming out with an eagerness to get better.”