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UF coach Bryan Shelton confers with freshman Elliott Orkin, one of the program's young building blocks, during a match.

Friday May 9, 2014Similar in Record Only: Shelton Sees Gators on Upswing Heading into NCAA Tournament

UF coach Bryan Shelton confers with freshman Elliott Orkin, one of the program's young building blocks, during a match.

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- They had the doubles point on the board and a couple wins in singles matches, too. The Florida Gators, seeded 15th and playing at home during last year’s NCAA Men’s Tennis Championships, were cruising along against mega-underdog Denver needing just one win from the three remaining matches on the court.

Then everything went sideways.

Florent Diep lost at No. 2 in straight sets. Bob van Overbeek dropped a third set at No. 3. And Billy Federhofer was routed 6-1 in his third set.

Game. Set. Nightmare.

It was party time for the Pioneers, right there in the middle of the Linder Stadium.

“One of the lowest points of my career,” Gators coach Bryan Shelton said earlier this week, looking back on the disappointing end to his first season charged with rebuilding the UF men’s program. “When something like that happens, the first thing I do is take responsibility and look at what I could have done differently.”

Fast forward to this weekend when UF again is hosting the NCAA’s opening weekend. The Gators (15-9) are seeded about where they were a year ago -- 14th as opposed to 15th -- and face a big underdog in Big East Conference champ St. John’s (16-7) in a first-round match that, on paper, looks an awful lot like last year’s scenario.

Shelton, though, knows better.

“We may have some of the same players here, but the truth is we’re totally different than  we were a year ago,” he said. “The players we brought in bring something different to the table and, quite honestly, I really, really like what they’re bringing.”

Call it a buy-in thing.

When UF athletic director Jeremy Foley looked to fix the wheel-spinning men’s program in 2012 -- after the Gators failed to crack the round of 16 in nine of the previous 11 seasons -- he turned to Shelton, the former touring pro and coach who built a powerhouse women’s program at Georgia Tech, where he won an NCAA title in 2007.

The reconstruction of UF men’s tennis began with a deconstruction of mindset and attitude, with Shelton laying down strict ground rules about the way things had to be and then hitting the recruiting trail to find players who would do it his way.

Enter freshmen Maxx Lipman and Elliott Orkin.

“I wasn’t even looking at Florida until Bryan Shelton got here,” said Lipman, the Brentwood, Tenn., product who at 16 was the nation’s No. 1-ranked junior before an injury set back his progress. “He changed my whole outlook.”

“Bryan told me that if you wanted to come to Florida you were coming to win championships; that that was his goal from the moment he decided to come here,” said Orkin, out of Marietta, Ga., and the country’s No. 6 recruit his senior year at Eaton Academy. “We took the first step this year.”

It may not show in record or seeding, but Shelton knows the Gators are on the right path. That has little to do with matches and more to do with the time between matches; the work that’s being done every day at the Ring Complex.

“We’re building for the future,” Lipman said.

Upon Shelton’s arrival from Tech, where he built a program from next to nothing and won the only NCAA championship (in any sport) in Yellow Jackets history, Shelton laid down non-negotiable guidelines not only when it came to work ethic, but also to accountability and discipline on and off the court. Those who didn’t buy in were either phased out or shown the door.

Shelton also brought in former UF All-American and NCAA singles champion Mark Merklein as an assistant coach and orange-and-blue tennis icon. A fitness freak, Merklein worked with strength coach Collin Crane to revamp the conditioning program and challenge the Gators to get in the best shape of their tennis lives.

“And the guys never flinched,” Shelton said.

That’s not to say there weren’t growing pains; some costly ones, at that.

Take March 28 at Arkansas. The Gators went to Fayetteville ranked 15th and lost 4-3 to a Razorbacks squad that went on to finish 2-11 in the SEC.

Just like the Denver debacle last May, Shelton turned a finger at himself.

“We weren’t prepared. I take responsibility for that and I told them that,” he said. “When players see the coach isn’t just one to cast blame -- that he’s willing to accept ownership for the problem -- then it’s easier for everyone else to recognize this is not your problem or my problem, but rather our problem. That’s a good life’s lesson and the key is how you respond to that.”

From there, Florida went 6-2 and won four of five SEC dual matches, with one of the losses coming against Texas A&M in the finals of the conference tournament. Along the way, Lipman played mostly at No. 3 singles and won eight SEC matches, a league-high for freshman. Orkin won six.

The Lipman-Orkin duo provided a nice counter mix to seniors Diep, who went 13-5 in SEC while playing mostly at the No. 1 spot, and Mike Alford, who ran his career wins total to 85 (that’s eighth on UF’s career list). Not only were Diep and Alford consistent and steadying influences on the baseline, they matched it with how they went about their business in the weight room, the clubhouse and classroom.

The Shelton way.

As in bought in.

“I’m telling you, we’re night and day from where we were,” Shelton said.

The coach’s big-picture vision is clear. Now it’s a matter of making it happen. The next step is a solid showing in this weekend’s tournament, with the likes of Diep and Alford leading the way, while Lipman and Elliott serve as the foundation.

“When we first got here, Bryan said we were the future for the program,” Orkin said. “He’s expecting a lot from us and he’s put that pressure on us. But that’s OK. I think it’s made us have the year we’ve had.”


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