No. 12 Illini men’s tennis makes two Big Ten road stops

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Illinois’ Marek Czerwinski returns a ball in a doubles match against Purdue at the Atkins Tennis Center on Friday Feb. 27, 2009. Czerwinski and partner Marc Spicijaric lost in a close 9-8 match.

By Jim Shay

No. 12 Illinois will defend its perfect conference record as Iowa and Minnesota try to knock the visiting Illini of out a first-place tie with No. 5 Ohio State.

A share of the Big Ten lead will be at stake this weekend when the men’s tennis team makes its final two stops of the current five-game road trip.

No. 12 Illinois (14-5, 4-0 Big Ten) will defend its perfect conference record against a pair of Big Ten opponents this weekend, as No. 64 Iowa (10-3, 2-2) and No. 33 Minnesota (14-4, 3-1) try to knock the visiting Illini of out a first-place tie with No. 5 Ohio State.

Brad Dancer acknowledged the Illini will have to work harder for the wins than ever before against much-improved conference competition.

“The Big Ten is a tougher and more competitive league than it has been in the past, the conference keeps on getting stronger and stronger,” Dancer said. “We’ve got to go into both of these places and be ready to play two really tough matches. I think we’re capable of winning any match, to play against anyone if we concentrate but we’ve certainly got to be a little more ready to play.”

A well-traveled Illini squad arrived in Iowa City, Iowa, on Thursday night fresh off a 6-1 dismantling of Indiana on Tuesday. The victory snapped the team’s first two-game losing streak of the spring and helped the players regain some swagger after close contests at Texas A&M; and Notre Dame.

The road has not always been kind this spring, and the current swing may be exactly what Illinois needs with the Big Ten Tournament now a mere three weeks away.

“Road trips in general, obviously they’re going to be tough for multiple different reasons. This one in particular is probably more of a test because it’s two Big Ten teams that we’re playing,” junior Marek Czerwinski said.

“I think we’re all looking forward to getting confidence out of these two matches and making it a race going into Big Tens.”

The No. 18-ranked freshman duo of Dennis Nevolo and Ruan Roelofse will lead the Illini against two ranked doubles opponents this weekend, No. 57 Christian Bierich and Nikita Zotov of Iowa and No. 69 Tobias Wernet and Michael Sicora of Minnesota.

Both the Hawkeyes and Golden Gophers dropped matches to Illinois in 2008, and Minnesota’s sole conference loss this season came at the hands of a Buckeye squad that will roll into Champaign next weekend.

Even with a handful of matches still to play, the looming face off with much-maligned Ohio State is tough for senior Marc Spicijaric to ignore.

“I think it’s hard not to think about that match since we’ve had that circled on our calendars for so long,” Spicijaric said. “But at the same time, I think all of us understand we need to take it one match at a time. We still have four matches before we play Ohio State, and these road matches are going to be pretty tough.”