Men’s tennis extends streak with 13th straight NCAA bid



By Alex Iniguez

For the 13th straight season, No. 15 Illinois (18-8) is preparing for the NCAA tournament. After a season of triumphs and tribulations, the Illini are priming themselves for a strong tournament run beginning May 9, when the Orange and Blue host Xavier (16-8). The undefeated No. 46 Drake Bulldogs (24-0) and No. 18 LSU (14-8) round out their region.

“It’s very important for a lot of reasons,” head coach Brad Dancer said about hosting the regional. “It allows the players to focus on exams and get our preparation in order without having to worry about traveling. We won’t have any distractions, and we get to play at the friendly confines of Atkins. We love playing here. The fans and local support are huge. We’re very pleased to be in this position.”

Xavier is making its first NCAA tournament appearance in school history, and the Atlantic 10 champions are coming in hot. The Musketeers had an eight-match win streak during the season and carry a five-match streak into Urbana.

“Right now, we don’t know a whole lot about Xavier,” Dancer said. “LSU is very good. I don’t think we saw their best tennis earlier this year, and I’m sure they’re talking about that right now down there. They’ve got a tough match in Drake, but my guess is that LSU will make it through. We have to make it through Xavier first and then focus on the next day.”

Illinois’ last match was a tight 4-3 loss to No. 2 Ohio State in the Big Ten Championships. With the conference title on the line, the Buckeyes were able to withstand the Illini’s strong, aggressive attack. The two Big Ten rivals could potentially meet in the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament. Last season, Ohio State defeated Illinois in the regular season and in the Big Ten Championships, but the Illini won when it counted most – in the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament.

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    “We’re obviously really motivated right now because of the Ohio State loss,” senior Ryan Rowe said. “We were right there, and I think that next time we’ll be able to get them.”

    At the moment, however, Illinois is focused on the first round. The Illini can prepare without the distractions associated of playing on the road.

    “We don’t have to stress out,” junior Marc Spicijaric said. “It’s great to play in front of the home fans. It’s just more relaxing. We get to stay in our own beds and be in a more comfortable surrounding. That helps so much.”

    Illini earn individual bids to NCAA tournament

    Seniors Ryan Rowe and Ruben Gonzales each qualified for the NCAA Singles Championships. In addition, the tandem of Rowe and sophomore Billy Heiser qualified for the NCAA Doubles Championships. Both the singles and doubles tournaments will be held May 21-26 at the Michael D. Case Tennis Center in Tulsa, Okla. The selections are Rowe’s second consecutive in singles and third consecutive in doubles. Gonzales and Heiser are each making their first appearance in the tournaments.

    “It’s very exciting for all those guys,” head coach Brad Dancer said. “To say I’m excited for Ruben would be an understatement. And for Heiser to go as a sophomore is a great thing. It helps so much to be around a group of high-caliber players at those tournaments.”