Two lone upperclassmen lead young Illini tennis squad into new season

The Illinois men’s tennis roster will include few familiar names this fall. The defending Big Ten champions return only two upperclassmen, seniors Stephen Hoh and Bruno Abdelnour, and three sophomores. The Orange and Blue boast the nation’s No. 6 recruiting class to help fill the void left by the graduation of standouts Dennis Nevolo and Roy Kalmonovich.

“We have an incredibly young team, maybe the youngest team even possible,” head coach Brad Dancer said.

“We are looking for leadership across the board,” he continued. “The seniors do a good job leading by example, and the sophomores have tremendous leadership capabilities. I’m anxious to see how it plays out.”

Hoh realizes the team will need him to step up.

“It can be a really different and interesting experience for me and Bruno,” Hoh said. “Half of the team is new. It will be a real challenge to be an example to lead to good results.”

But the seniors will not have to lead by themselves.

“Bruno and Stephen are the seniors, and they will help lead,” sophomore Farris Gosea said. “But me and the sophomores need to step up and help the freshmen get on the right path.”

Despite their youth, Hoh said it is possible for this year’s Illini to be improved over last year’s Sweet 16 squad in some areas.

“This year’s team will have a lot more energy,” Hoh said. “The new guys want to move around. Last year, we had a rough year in doubles, but some of the new guys are really good at doubles, so I think we can improve on that.”

Collegiate tennis is unique in that players are permitted to practice with their coaches for unlimited hours in the summer as long as the time is voluntary. The Illinois squad spent its summer in and out of Champaign practicing and playing in competitions across the country.

Freshman Jared Hiltzik, the nation’s top recruit, placed third at the USTA Boys’ National Tennis Championships, where he also won the Sportsmanship Award. Hiltzik will compete in the U.S. Open Junior field this fall.

Sophomore Farris Gosea won the singles title at the USTA/ITA National Summer Championships on Aug. 13. The win secured Gosea a place at the ITA All-American Championships in October.

“It’s pretty big,” Gosea said. “It’s a good opportunity for me to get a high ranking and then if I do well this fall, hopefully start heading into the spring.”

Most of the Illini will begin their fall competition at the Champaign City Championships over Labor Day weekend, but the Orange and Blue don’t return to team action until the OFCC Invitational in Olympia Fields, Ill., on Sept. 14. The fall schedule also includes the ITA National Indoors and Big Ten individual competition.