No luck needed: Illini beat Irish



By Alex Iniguez

Fittingly, on the weekend when campus celebrated Unofficial St. Patrick’s Day, the Illinois men’s tennis team battled No. 12 Notre Dame. But instead of the Fighting Irish channeling the luck, it was the Illini who took the gold at the end of the rainbow, winning 6-1 in decisive fashion.

No. 13 Illinois (7-4, 1-0 Big Ten) had an obvious bounce in its step before the match began, assisted by pregame tunes from the Illinois Orange and Blues band, and the intensity and confidence stuck with the Illini throughout the match. No. 20 Ryan Rowe and Billy Heiser defeated Brett Helgeson and Sheeva Parbhu of Notre Dame to start the night, and No. 27 Brandon Davis and Ruben Gonzales secured the doubles point with a victory against Andrew Roth and Santiago Montoya.

Leading 1-0 on their home court, the Illini never looked back. The team won first sets on all six courts and only dropped one match, as David Anderson of Notre Dame narrowly defeated Marc Spicijaric 5-7, 6-2, 1-0 (10-8).

The quickest Illini player to secure a singles victory was No. 30 Billy Heiser. The sophomore took down Steven Havens in two quick sets 6-3, 6-1, much to the delight of the Atkins Tennis Center crowd, and more specifically head coach Brad Dancer. Dancer was fired up all evening and gave Heiser an emphatic hug following the victory in singles play.

“Coach has been on me for keeping high standards for myself,” Heiser said. “I tend to start playing well and then I take points off and go on vacation a little bit. Tonight was really good for me – every point had the same intensity. That’s been a big goal of mine and tonight was the first night that I’ve really accomplished that.”

After Heiser’s win, the Illini were quick to call themselves victors. Gonzales played a stunning match at No. 2 singles, winning 6-2, 6-3 against No. 73 Sheeva Parbhu, and Rowe secured the win for Illinois by again spoiling the efforts of No. 32 Helgeson 6-3, 6-4.

“We talked about how tough we need to be, but it’s gotta be fun,” Dancer said. “One of the themes tonight was to just have fun, and the guys were out there smiling and getting after it. Sometimes as a coach you see all the disciplinary things and all that, but tonight I think we did a good job of just having fun out there.”

Illinois’ Abe Souza, playing in his sixth dual match of the season, exhibited Dancer’s sentiments. The freshman bounced back from losing his doubles match, fought hard and eventually emerged victorious against Tyler Davis 6-1, 6-7(6), 1-0 (10-3).

“Not only is Abe a likeable guy, he puts everything into his tennis,” Dancer said. “He works as hard as anyone on our team. He’s very disciplined, very dedicated and he believes in himself. Those are the types of people you want to have on your team.”

The success that the Illini found Saturday could be attributed to the team’s struggle to defeat No. 65 Michigan State (11-4, 0-1) on Friday. Before looking ahead to the Irish, Illinois faced a Spartan team that had won four straight times heading into Friday’s match. Again, the freshmen played a large role in the win, as the duo of Souza and Connor Roth secured the doubles point and Waylon Chin clinched the match victory coming from behind to defeat John Stratton, 3-6, 6-2, 6-3.

The triumph marks the 11th straight time the Illini have won their Big Ten opener and allows the team to build upon this success as it takes on Purdue this Saturday at home.

“One of the things we talked about going into this weekend was that we wanted to gain some momentum and build confidence,” Dancer said. “I certainly think our performance this weekend will help.”