No. 11 Illini men’s tennis back home after five-match roadtrip

By John Lock

The No. 11 Illinois men’s tennis team is ready to play in front of a home crowd again after taking three matches of a five-match roadtrip.

“It’s nice to finally be home after like a month away from here,” senior Marc Spicijaric said with a chuckle. “Last weekend was pretty brutal.”

No rest for these Illini, though. The Illini (16-5, 6-0) will face even more stiff competition Wednesday in the No. 14 Kentucky Wildcats (14-7), followed by conference showdowns with No. 61 Penn State and No. 5 Ohio State this weekend.

Before the Orange and Blue can worry about their Big Ten foes, they must focus on the Wildcats. Kentucky has lost two of three, but both losses came to teams ranked in the top five nationally. Illinois head coach Brad Dancer said his team will be ready to go, and he is not concerned about his team looking ahead to the big showdown with the Buckeyes this weekend.

“If there is (concern), I’m not a very good coach,” said Dancer. “These guys know they have a great battle (Wednesday) with Kentucky. It’s a great challenge for us.”

Freshman Dennis Nevolo remains focused on the Wildcats, but he is not oblivious to the weekend match up with co-Big Ten leader Ohio State.

“I think definitely our mind wanders a little bit,” said Nevolo. “We know Kentucky is a very good team, so we’re definitely still getting ready for that, thinking about them.”

After the season’s first back-to-back losses, Dancer shifted around his lineup during the last three matches. The Illini have responded with three consecutive wins heading into the Kentucky matchup.

“We’ve done some changing with our lineup recently,” said Dancer. “That can be a breath of fresh air, which it has been in some ways, but a little bit of anxiety creeps in there. Some new guys are getting some chances, and hopefully it’s exciting for them. They’re taking advantage of it, which is a good thing.”

Sophomores Abe Souza and Waylon Chin have each played in the past three matches, all Illini wins. Dancer plans on switching up the doubles teams for the Kentucky match.

For the Illini to beat Kentucky, though, Dancer thinks the team needs to play better as a whole than they did against Minnesota on Sunday.

“For sure,” said Dancer. “I was proud of our guys for getting through (the road swing), but I think the overall level of performance has to be a little bit higher.”

Dancer was also excited about the opportunity to play outdoors.

“We’ve been talking for six or seven years about being able to play on our new courts,” said Dancer. “It might be a little cold and windy, but it looks like we’ll be able to play outdoors.”