Illini men’s tennis heads to Notre Dame for weekend

By Christopher Kennedy

This weekend was originally scheduled to be open for the Illinois men’s tennis team. Winter weather changed that, and the Illini will head to South Bend, Indiana, as the No. 3 team in the country for a pair of rescheduled matches. The team will face No. 14 Notre Dame and Valparaiso with their highest national ranking since 2006.

The Illini moved up three spots from No. 6 after a dominating weekend of three victories. Illinois shut out Toledo 4-0 and blew away Big Ten rival Indiana 7-0 for the second-consecutive year. Friday night’s match against Northwestern was the only match that had a result in doubt. Illinois dropped the doubles point to the Wildcats, but picked up wins in five of the six singles matches.

Head coach Brad Dancer said that there is still work to be done on the team’s doubles play. The Illini tried out some new lineups in their Sunday matches after losing the point on Friday. No. 67 Aron Hiltzik and Toshiki Matsuya reunited on a college court after winning a doubles national championship as 12-year-olds. Sunday’s matches also provided different singles matchups, including No. 44 Aleks Vukic getting a shot at the No. 1 singles spot.

“We’ll continue to tinker but we’ve had some guys that have performed well and I think those guys have earned a chance to play,” Dancer said. “At the same time, we know that there are other guys that are ready to step in.”

The Fighting Irish and the Illini are frequent foes, playing each other every year since 1974. Last year, Notre Dame came to Atkins Tennis Center at the start of a three-match homestand. Illinois’ 4-2 victory was the first loss of the year for Notre Dame and the first of three Illinois wins over top-20 opponents in three days.

This year, the match with Notre Dame kicks off a long stretch away from home for the Illini. This weekend is the Illinois’ last match until March 14 at Texas. Dancer said in past years the Illini have struggled with long stretches away from home. The team can fight off a midseason slump on the road by starting off the stretch with two victories in South Bend.

Notre Dame is led by No. 24 Quentin Monaghan. At the Olympia Fields Fighting Illini Invitational, one of Illinois’ very first competitions in the fall, Monaghan earned Most Outstanding Player honors, beating Illinois junior Jared Hiltzik 6-1, 6-1. Notre Dame spent last weekend in Columbus, where they lost 6-1 to Illinois’ Big Ten nemesis Ohio State. Notre Dame beaten several of the same teams as Illinois: Kentucky, Northwestern and Ball State.

Valparaiso comes into Saturday on a five-match winning streak. The Crusaders play in the Horizon League, and earlier this year, Illinois dominated league champion Wisconsin-Green Bay 4-0 at Atkins. At the ITA Midwest Regional Championships this fall, Aron Hiltzik took down Valpo’s top singles player, Jeffrey Schorsch, 7-6, 6-3.

While Saturday marks the start of a long road stretch for Illinois, Dancer said that he doesn’t think it should affect the team too much.

“We’re gonna go on the road and play well on the road, we’re gonna go at home and play well at home,” Dancer said. “We’re just gonna get ready to play.”

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