Illinois men’s tennis continues season in Waco

By Christopher Kennedy

The Illinois men’s tennis team started the spring season with a big win in Waco, Texasmp.

The Illini hope the season ends with a few more — they are headed to Baylor for the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Championships. Their Round of 16 match is a rematch of one of their biggest wins of the spring: No. 4 Illinois will face No. 13 North Carolina on Thursdaymp.

“When you advance to Sweet Sixteen, you feel like you’re part of an elite group there,” head coach Brad Dancer said. “Obviously these guys want more and we know that it’ll be a big challenge for us come Thursday.”

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That first trip to Waco on Jan. 21 kicked off a fantastic spring campaign for Illinoismp. In his first collegiate dual match, Aleks Vukicmp clinched a victory over Baylor in a thrilling third set tiebreaker. It was revenge for Illinois against a Baylor team that had been trouble for the Illini in 2014. The Bears were the only team to shut out the Illini — they did it twice — and they knocked Illinois out of the NCAA Tournament in the Sweet Sixteen. It was the start of a big spring for Vukic. He now holds the team record for singles wins in a season with 44 and counting.

The Illini played host to the ITA Team National Indoor Championships at Chicago’s Midtown Athletic Club. They swept California in the first round but fell to Georgia in the second, with Farris Goseamp dropping a third-set tiebreaker to seal the deal. The highlight of the tournament was the Illini’s consolation round victory over Ohio State. It was the first Illini victory over the Buckeyes since 2012mp.

Before the conference slate began for Illinois, the team went on its “March through Texas” — three road matches in three days against top-20 teams in the Lone Star State. The team started things off with a 4-2 win in Austin against No. 8 Texasmp and followed it up with a win a 4-2 win in College Station over No. 9 Texas A&Mmp.

Three freshmen notched singles wins for the Illini that day: Vukic, Aron Hiltzik, and Toshiki Matsuyamp. Even with a roster that didn’t lose any players from last season, three freshmen were key contributors throughout the season.

The Illini couldn’t carry their momentum to their third Texas match; they were swept for the first and only time this season against TCU in Fort Worth, 4-0. The Texas trip was also significant as the first time with a significant shift in the Illini doubles line-ups. After early season struggles with the doubles point, Dancer split-up top doubles duo Tim Kopinski and Ross Guignonmp to distribute their doubles expertise across two courts. The decision paid dividends for the Illini and would hold the rest of the season.

Illinois rolled through the first part of the Big Ten schedule, highlighted by its first sweep of Ohio State since 2002. The victory snapped Ohio State’s 97-match regular season Big Ten win streakmp. The tide turned in the rivalry between Illinois and Ohio State this season.

Prior to the spring, Illinois had beaten Ohio State three times in the last 10 years. The Illini beat the Buckeyes three times this season alonemp.

The Illini rattled off six-straight Big Ten wins before falling to Minnesota on April 17. The loss left them in a three-way tie for the regular season conference title and something to prove at the Big Ten Tournament.

But the Illini rolled through the tournament, sweeping all three opponents 4-0. The championship match came against Ohio State, and Aron Hiltzik clinched it to give the Illini their first Big Ten tournament championship since 2012mp.

The Illini also played host to the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament last weekend. They swept UW-Green Bay for the second time this season in the first round but were met with a challenge in round two from the Drake Bulldogs on Saturday. It was a tense, back-and-forth match, but the Illini pulled it out 4-2 to advance to Waco, Texas. It’s the first match Illinois has dropped a point in since its loss to Minnesotamp.

Now, the Illini head to a familiar court to face a familiar foe. The Illini have championship aspirations, but it’ll be a tough road. The Tar Heels are formidable, and a possible Elite Eight matchup with TCU looms in the next round.

“We made it, it feels great, hopefully try and make a deep run. But as I said, every team’s going to come fight you,” Gosea said. “We really just got to take it match by match and take it down smaller and just go point by point.”

[email protected] @chriskennedy_4