Men’s tennis set to win

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Online Poster

By Amber Greviskes

The Illinois men’s tennis team has won three national titles in two years. The men begin their road to what they hope will be their next title today at the Napa Valley Invitational.

The Illini will square off against three traditional powerhouses – Texas A & M, Georgia and Cal – but this year’s lineup only vaguely resembles the NCAA 2003 Championship roster.

All-Americans Michael Calkins, Phil Stolt and Brian Wilson graduated. Amer Delic and Rajeev Ram joined the professional circuit shortly after clinching the 2003 NCAA title.

Only senior Chris Martin remains from the six men who were on the court when Illinois clinched its first NCAA Championship in Athens, Ga.

But these Illini aren’t worried.

“We’ve got a young team and it’s going to take some work to be where we were last year and the year before,” said Illinois head coach Craig Tiley. “But we’ll get there, maybe this year, maybe next year, but we’ll be there soon enough.”

The Napa Valley Invitational, a round robin event, is unlike many of the tournaments the men will play this year. Team scores are not kept, although the teams in attendance should be in contention for a national title. Georgia finished last season ranked sixth. Texas A & M was 19th. Cal finished 30th.

“The most important thing for us is match play,” Martin said. “It makes it tough, but that’s exactly what we want.”

Many of the athletes will use the tournament as a measuring stick to see how they fare against the nation’s finest.

“It gives us a little bit of a gauge as to where we are in the country,” Illinois junior Ryler DeHeart said. “If you’re not ready for it, you have to get ready for it pretty quick.”

DeHeart and Martin are among the older members of the Illinois team who have had to quickly fill leadership roles vacated by last year’s seniors. The upperclassmen have found themselves in leadership positions they have not held before – the freshman class is the largest since last year’s graduates arrived in August 2000. Even the coaching staff has undergone several changes; associate head coach Brad Dancer arrived from Fresno State just weeks ago.

“There’s a lot of new faces,” said Tiley, who is thrilled with the freshman class’s enthusiasm. “We’ll give the freshmen a shot and see how they do against national competition.”

The four newcomers who will compete for Illinois this fall are Brandon Davis, Andrew Eklov, Ruben Gonzales and Monte Tucker. Ryan Rowe joins the team in January.

Tucker, who is ranked No. 121 in the nation, said he is excited about the tournament and the chance to travel with the team. Still, he realizes the jump from the juniors circuit to college competition will contain several hurdles.

“It’s going to be a lot tougher,” Tucker said. “There’s going to be a lot more depth in the teams. These guys – this is what they do.”

The upperclassmen are determined to help the freshmen adjust to the demands of college tennis.

“We can’t wait to watch them play and compete with them,” said Illinois senior Evan Zeder. “We had such a good class ahead of us, and it’s nice to be able to take those leadership roles and help the freshmen out.”