He has this piece of advice for his charges: Be yourself.
The Gamecocks make their NCAA debut today — the first time in any division — against No. 14 seed and host Georgia Tech at the Bill Moore Tennis Center. Ole Miss and Arizona State make up the other side of the bracket.
JSU is one of only two first-timers in this year’s field of 64 (Akron). The other three teams in the Gamecocks’ regional have 52 combined NCAA Tournament appearances.
Although the stakes have never been higher for the Gamecocks, Bailey just wants his players to stay in the moment against the tournament-tested Yellow Jackets.
“Here’s the key,” said Bailey, who has taken his JSU men’s team to the D-I Tournament three times. “Any time, whether it’s golf or tennis or football — no matter what sport — you want to have fun and play hard, but you still want to do what you do best.
“A lot of times you think you have to do too much, go for shots you normally don’t go with. When I see mistakes in the nationals, it’s my guys tried to do too much. Just stay within your game plan and do what you do best at least if you lose, you’re doing what you do best.”
Tech will present the Gamecocks (13-10) a formidable challenge. The Yellow Jackets (13-10) have three singles players ranked in the top 100 nationally and a doubles team ranked in the top 20.
JSU aces Vivian Marani (6-11) and Martina Dessbesell (13-8) will draw Tech’s top two players, No. 32 Jillian O’Neill and No. 98 Caroline Lilley, and also face them at first doubles where O’Neill-Lilley are ranked No. 18, but have only been playing together since April 3. Marani-Dessbesell are 11-8 in doubles.
The key to the match is what happens next. If Tech sticks with the lineup it has used most of the past month, JSU freshman Raisa Guasti (13-9) will face No. 65 Christina Ngo at third singles. The other singles matches finds Raphaela Lima (12-9) vs. Lynn Blau, Juliana Renesto (9-10) vs. Sasha Krupina and Rafaela Wenzel (8-11) vs. Elizabeth Kilborn.
Guasti and Lima have each won their last six singles matches that have gone to conclusion, and their last nine straight doubles matches together. Interestingly, Tech is 13-0 this season when it wins the doubles points, 0-10 when it loses the doubles point.
“To me, the match always turns where I call the meat of the order,” Bailey said. “The doubles point is always very important to get the momentum and once you start singles you know everybody’s got a good No. 1 player. The strength of our team was our 2-3-4. They carried us. If you look at our results right there at the end, it was solid. We took the doubles point, then it was 2-3-4 with Peay and Martin.”
Those two victories are part of a seven-match winning streak the Gamecocks carry into the regional. They have won 11 of their last 15 matches overall.
“Jacksonville State is playing very well right now,” Tech coach Bryan Shelton said. “I expect them to be excited, fired up and wanting to make the most of this opportunity.
“For us, I think it’s important that we establish ourselves early in the doubles. That’s something we’ve been working extremely hard the past couple of weeks. It’s been our primary focus.”
The way Bailey sees it, all the pressure is on Tech.
“I think it goes back to (his women’s team) hadn’t been in this setting before,” he said. “Don’t get too antsy to try to be a hero or do something they’re not used to. My job as coach is to keep them grounded and see that their eyes don’t get too big.
“What do we have to lose? The pressure’s on them, not us. They’re supposed to win. Just play as hard as you can.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.