March 28, 2012
By Rob Daniels, for theACC.com
So there he sat, a mere two years into his job as an assistant women's tennis coach at Duke and less than three years removed from his own playing days at Maryland. The boss had suddenly left and Jamie Ashworth was in charge.
This was not a case of picking up the pieces, but to outsiders, it might seem like one with relative peril. If Ashworth kept the Blue Devils atop the Atlantic Coast Conference, some might say a well programmed computer could do as well. And if they fell? Well, guess who'd get the blame.
Fifteen years and one week later, ACC women's tennis is a lot more competitive than it used to be, but the Duke program remains a consistent leader. And Ashworth is now the biggest winner in ACC history, having shed the presumptions of auto-pilot operation long ago.
With last weekend's 4-3 win over No. 8 Virginia and 7-0 win over Virginia Tech, the fifth-ranked Blue Devils improved to 15-2 in 2011-12 and took their coach's record to 353-82. North Carolina's Kitty Harrison, the previous record-holder, won 351 times in 21 seasons. Ashworth's winning percentage of .811 got him to the magic number in less than 16 campaigns.
"I wanted the challenge of it," Ashworth said this week. "I never thought about the winning streak as any kind of burden."
That streak was a run of dual-match wins without a loss in ACC play. As the 1997 spring season was just getting going, it became Ashworth's to preserve, protect and defend when Jody Hyden suddenly resigned his post, saying he needed to pursue other ventures outside of tennis. Ashworth moved over one desk and wondered.
The current team wasn't the issue. The Blue Devils were in the eighth of 10 consecutive perfect ACC seasons and on their way to another conference title. For the future, the new guy would have to win over recruits and convince them that the program's foundation remained strong.
He accomplished that goal, ultimately extending Duke's regular-season ACC winning streak to 84 matches before it finally ended in 2001.
"A lot of it goes to the girls we recruit," the coach said. "They are extremely motivated, hard-working and dedicated. They have aspirations beyond college - whether on the pro tour or in whatever walk of life they choose. They know the value of a Duke degree and the value of the Duke family wherever they go in the world." Specifically, Ashworth cites a meeting he attended with men's basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, who reminded him that a connection to Duke University would be a lifelong selling point for any prospect.
"Coach K was talking about how a girl might be playing a tennis tournament in Africa and will be introduced as having played at Duke. That carries value," Ashworth recalled. "She'll get support because of it."
As for league titles, the Devils kept that run going through the 2001 season, in which they earned their 14th straight crown. At the time, the streak was the longest by any program in ACC women's athletics. Only once has it been surpassed since.
Maintaining the momentum would be the next and most ambitious goal. In 2004-05, the ACC took in Miami, a perpetual national power. With expansion, nearly every program in the conference increased its commitment to the sport in scholarships, travel budget, facilities or all three.
"It all coincided with the ACC's initial expansion," Ashworth said. "It drove us all to be better. We had that win streak and it was a great thing, but we had always felt we went into the NCAA Tournament not as prepared as we could have been because the competition for the previous month hadn't been as good as other conferences (offered). Now, every match is tough."
In the final 1997 Intercollegiate Tennis Association poll, Duke was one of two ACC programs in the nation's Top 15. Last year, the Top 15 had seven ACC representatives.
In 2009, the Blue Devils broke through, sweeping to a 4-0 victory over California in the championship match at College Station, Texas. The final ball struck in competition that day sits on his desk, accompanied by his NCAA credential and hotel room key for the week.
Likewise, Ashworth chased down the ball from the final point of last week's record-setting win over Virginia. He tossed it to his wife, who was charged with the important task of keeping it out of the jaws of Bear, the Black Labrador who remains convinced it's a toy.
At No. 5, Duke is ranked in the Top 5 for the 22nd straight poll. That's the longest streak in the country and an indicator that the Blue Devils are ready to make another run at an NCAA crown.
On campus, the team has developed a following with fellow students, who recognize excellence when they see it.
"As a team, one of our goals is to produce a lot of energy," Ashworth said. "If you give people something to cheer about, they'll cheer."