ATHENS — In 2002, Jeff Wallace coached the Georgia women’s tennis team to 22 straight wins. The streak ended when the Bulldogs lost to South Carolina in the Southeastern Conference tournament semifinals.
This year, Wallace’s team had 23 straight wins heading into the SEC tournament final, also against South Carolina.
Wallace’s pre-match message came from the team’s experience in 2002.
“He told us what mistakes they made and told us that we should learn from them,” sophomore Vivian Wolff said.
Georgia fell 4-3. Just like in 2002, the team’s winning streak was over.
The 2019 team would like the parallels to end there.
Georgia still heads into this year’s NCAA tournament as the No. 1 overall seed. The Bulldogs host first and second rounds this weekend, opening against Alabama State on Saturday.
Austin Peay and Wake Forest meet in the other first-round match in Athens.
“It would’ve been great to win the SEC (tournament) title, but we’re here to win national championships,” sophomore Katarina Jokic said.
The 2002 season was no doubt special for the program, just as this year has been. But the difference between the two teams could be how this year’s Georgia responds after its first loss.
“The initial feeling was shock; I felt horrible,” freshman Meg Kowalski said. “That was my first loss ever. Like, why did that have to be my first loss?”
Following the loss, the team returned to the locker room. The Bulldogs were, for the first time all season, the ones not celebrating.
“When I looked at these faces, I saw a lot of people that were really upset and really hurt and didn’t like that feeling,” Wallace said.
But in the lowest moment in a season with so few dips, the team came together to move past defeat.
“Coach [Wallace] was saying, ‘Before this we were 23-0. Look at all we’ve done all season,’” Kowalski said. “Then when the coaches left [the room], all the girls got together. Our captain, Elena [Christofi], was like, ‘Guys, we can either sulk or we can use this as motivation.’”
After the loss to South Carolina in 2002, Georgia scrapped its way to the semifinals of the NCAA tournament. But that year’s team fell short of the national title.
“We can learn from their loss,” Wolff said of the 2002 team, “and win the whole thing.”
This year marked the first time Georgia went undefeated in the regular season since 2002.
“Not a lot of college teams go 23 wins straight; it’s not common,” junior Marta Gonzalez said. “All this year, thinking about how we’re making history, not only Georgia… that pumps you up.”
Both the 2002 team and this year’s team defeated a No. 1-ranked Stanford team 4-3 in the semifinals of the indoor national championships. Both won national indoor titles. Both defeated a No. 2 Vanderbilt team at one point during the season, and both won the regular-season SEC title.
Each team had at least three international players. Four players were named all-SEC in 2002, while Georgia had six all-SEC players this year. Georgia shut out teams in nine matches in 2002 and notched 14 shutouts this year.
Overall, they are the only two teams in program history to have their first loss of the season come during the SEC tournament.
“One loss doesn’t define us,” Kowalski said. “If you become a family, the easier it is to play out there and play for each other.”
The 23-win streak is no longer intact. But the team’s biggest goal still remains. This year’s team could have been the first to win both the SEC and NCAA tournament titles and go undefeated. That type of season will have to wait for now.
But how Georgia responds at NCAAs still could make this year’s team the best in program history.
“I think that our program, if you look through the years, it takes a lot of pride in bouncing back strong,” Wallace said. “That’s what Dawgs do and that’s what we plan on doing too.”
The Grady Sports Bureau is part of the sports media program at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.
This story was written by Quentin VanHoozer of the Grady Sports Bureau.