Illini feeling confident as Big Ten season arrives

The No. 51 Illinois women’s tennis team wants to prove to Big Ten foe Indiana that the past is forgotten.

“It doesn’t really matter about last year,” Illinois head coach Michelle Dasso said. “We’re a totally different team. We’re more confident, we’re in much better shape, and we’re much more prepared.”

The Illini haven’t beaten No. 36 Indiana (8-4) in more than four years. Last year, then-No. 58 Illinois fell short against then-No. 29 Indiana, 4-3. On Saturday, the Illini will host the Hoosiers to kick off their conference season.

Their 8-2 record is the strongest start the Illini, riding a six-match wining streak, have had entering the Big Ten season in four years. The Illini came into their conference opener last season with a 4-4 record. Now, Dasso feels that she is coaching an improved team.

“Last year, I wasn’t in as great of shape, and that might have been a factor in my match,” redshirt sophomore Leigh Finnegan said. “My endurance is a lot better this year, and I can definitely stand longer matches.”

Finnegan is off to an impressive 7-3 start at No. 1 singles and is ranked No. 86. Junior Megan Fudge boasts an unblemished 10-0 record in singles.

The arrival of the Big Ten season has brought all sorts of hype on the Illini, but the team is preparing the same way it has against its previous opponents.

“(We’ve done) more individual work, but truly nothing different,” Dasso said. “We’ve got to be ready to play everyone. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing.”

But the conference season brings something new for the Illini freshmen, Amy Allin and Chelcie Abajian.

“Everyone on my team has said ‘Get ready, it’s going to be intense, more intense than what we’ve been dealing with,'” Abajian said.

“But I’m excited. As a team, we’ve worked very hard, and we know we deserve to win these matches, and we should because we’ve put in all the effort that we should.

“Everyone’s really been getting pumped up. (The upperclassmen) say it’s a totally different atmosphere and feeling.”

Illinois’ two losses both came against top-25 teams: then-No. 24 Tennessee and then-No. 5 Stanford. Although Indiana is the first higher-ranked opponent Illinois will face since Jan. 31, Finnegan said the Illini will “try not to focus too much on rankings.”

The Hoosiers were on a three-match losing streak before their 4-3 win against then-No. 23 Wake Forest on Feb. 28. Indiana is led by senior Sigrid Fischer, who is 9-3 in singles.

Following Saturday’s match, the Illini will travel to West Lafayette, Ind., to face another Big Ten foe, Purdue (5-4, 1-0 Big Ten), on Sunday.

“This year we have different goals for the Big Ten,” Abajian said. “We really want to make a name for ourselves.”