By Zac Ellis
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The forecast for Easter Sunday in Nashville called for a high of 78 degrees with partly cloudy skies. But for Geoff Macdonald, a chance of heavy precipitation turned inevitable.
Last weekend, Macdonald's Vanderbilt women's tennis squad -- ranked fifth in the country -- upended No. 1 Florida, 4-2, to win the SEC regular-season championship. It was the Commodores' first regular-season title in Macdonald's 23 seasons on West End. When senior Sydney Campbell clinched the match with a stellar shot against Gators' star Josie Kuhlman, the gathered crowd at the university's Currey Tennis Center went wild.
Macdonald, meanwhile, leapt into the air after Campbell's decisive point. The coach hugged his players and began high-fiving fans along the edge of Vanderbilt's outdoor courts. That's when an otherwise dry afternoon turned soggy for Macdonald: His players staged an ambush and doused him with a full Gatorade cooler, a euphoric moment celebrating one achievement - a regular-season SEC title - that had eluded Macdonald during his time at Vanderbilt.
-- Vandy Women's Tennis (@Vandywtennis) April 16, 2017
"We've been in this match a lot and not gotten it, and it's such a hard league," Macdonald said afterward. "To even be going into the last weekend with a chance to win it means you've had a remarkable year.
"But it's a wonderful achievement. I'm just so happy for these young people. They study hard, they're class acts, they're fair. They're just remarkable young women. I hope all of Vanderbilt will be proud of them."
Thanks to Macdonald, Vanderbilt fans should be proud of their women's tennis program. The coach has turned the Commodores into one of the premier programs in collegiate tennis in more than two decades at the helm. This week, the Dores - fresh off their upset of top-ranked Florida -- head into the SEC Tournament in Nashville as the league's No. 1 seed. The conference bracket is just the latest chance for Vanderbilt to make its mark on the SEC under Macdonald.
"Geoff and his program are routinely recognized among the top-three developmental programs in the country," said Aleke Tsoubanos, Macdonald's associate head coach and a former VU All-American (2000-04). "There are a number of great programs with great history. But if you ask people who are savvy about college tennis, Geoff's developmental mind and his passion for tennis is among the very best."
Vanderbilt's evolution under Macdonald has been remarkable. Prior to his arrival in Nashville in 1994, Vanderbilt had never been ranked higher than 28th in the nation. The Dores have since finished no lower than 19th in 17 of the past 20 seasons. The program reached the pinnacle of the sport in 2015, finishing No. 1 in the country after winning the squad's first SEC Tournament and NCAA championship.
Macdonald came to Vanderbilt following head-coaching stints and LSU and Duke, and he worked almost immediately to install his culture on West End. The coach envisioned Vanderbilt as the next great program to combine elite academics with championship-caliber athletics. It's possible, he told VU administrators, to excel at both.
"Duke is good. Stanford is good. There are a number of examples," Macdonald said. "So I took any negative here and tried to turn it into a positive."
Macdonald's recipe worked during his first season in 1995. With the help of transfer Kim Schiff, who followed Macdonald from Duke, the Dores finished 16-8 overall and 8-3 in the SEC and advanced to the NCAA Championships for the first time in school history. The next season, Vanderbilt finished 24-7, second in the SEC and ranked 10th nationally. Its 24 wins were the third-most of any team in the country that year.
Soon, elite recruits began to take notice of Vanderbilt's success. Macdonald notes the commitment of Julie Ditty in his '98 signing class as a watershed moment in Vanderbilt tennis history. Ditty went on to win 31 singles matches in 1999 - third-most all-time at VU - and led the program to its first NCAA team championship final in 2001. She later starred as a pro and was inducted to the Vanderbilt Athletics Hall of Fame in 2009.
Macdonald has carried that momentum at Vanderbilt for the better part of two decades. Now the standard has been set: the Virginia graduate is the all-time winningest coach in Vanderbilt tennis history and responsible for the program's first SEC regular-season title, tournament title and NCAA championship. Plus, he loves Vanderbilt; Macdonald, in his 23nd season, is the longest-tenured head coach at the university.
Why stick around? Because few schools offer what Vanderbilt does, Macdonald says.
"Great city. Great university. Best conference in the history of tennis conferences," Macdonald said. "I say it in recruiting all the time: Vanderbilt is an Ivy League school, but we play professional sports."
Macdonald has been a driving force at Vanderbilt, not least due to his affable personality. Players joke about his eclectic interests, which extend far beyond tennis. "The word `quirky' came up a lot when I was on the team," Tsoubanos says. "Geoff is just curious about things. It doesn't matter what the topic is -- history, sports, whatever. He's really good at trivia. Coach is just a really intelligent guy."
Tsoubanos said Macdonald is an avid reader and boasts the most extensive library of anyone she knows. He teamed with former player Marie Casares on the installation of solar panels atop the Currey Center roof, which helped reduce the building's energy emissions by 40 percent. On the court, Macdonald is constantly searching for an edge with his players.
"He's a little crazy sometimes," adds redshirt junior Astra Sharma. "He gives us turmeric and ginger supplements to take, and things like that. At first, it's all a little strange, but it really works. Now we've all grown to really love how eccentric and genius Coach is."
Quirks and all, Macdonald has made his mark as the most successful coach in Vanderbilt women's tennis history. The Commodores will look to add to his legacy during the SEC Tournament this week. The Dores hit the court Friday at 3 p.m. CT against the winner of Thursday's LSU-Texas A&M match.
After nearly a quarter-century of building the Vanderbilt program, Macdonald says he has likewise evolved as a coach. "I've come to realize my job is teaching my players how to think," Macdonald said. "When we're really good, their decision-making is really good. This team is close to being extremely good. But we've got to get to where we're thinking better.
"I maintain that tennis is the hardest game we've invented as human beings. You're out there by yourself. No substitutions. No timeouts. It's just you, your head and your opponent."