Men’s tennis sophomore class dealing with greater expectations of maturity, leadership

The Illinois men’s tennis sophomore class knows it is under pressure to learn from last season’s second round exit in the NCAA championships. Entering their second season, sophomores Jared Hiltzik, Alex Jesse, Brian Page and Julian Childers are striving to reaffirm the promise of 2012’s highly touted recruiting class. 

“We are clearly under more pressure this season after we underachieved last year,” Childers said. “Once we got up to the No. 13 ranking in the country, we became a little arrogant. After the rankings came out, we lost some of our focus and ended up losing to teams we were probably better than.”

The class of 2016 entered last season as the No. 6 ranked recruiting class in the country — one of the best under head coach Brad Dancer. The class was led by top-ranked recruit Hiltzik, five-star prospects Jesse and Childers and No. 12 ranked blue-chip recruit Page. 

While last season’s freshmen had a great deal of talent and potential, inconsistency was the biggest downfall collectively for the quartet. 

“All four of us had our peaks at different times in the season, and we weren’t all able to put together a consistent effort at the same time,” Jesse said. “For me, I started out pretty slow, only to end the season playing some of the best tennis of my season. Overall, we had inconsistency week-to-week, which killed us and kept us from matching our expectations.”

Outside of Jared Hiltzik — who was the most consistent of the class at 29-11 in singles — the rest of the freshmen went a combined 34-33 in singles play. 

Much of the quartet’s inconsistency came from inexperience and immaturity. After going 12-15 last season, Page said he personally struggled balancing his academic workload and tennis, which led to poor performances.

“We are all a lot more mature than we were as freshmen,” Hiltzik said. “We know how much is riding on this season for the program, so there is no excuse to not show one week. I’m confident that won’t happen this year.”

Hiltzik added the team has learned a lot from its losses, and it won’t let any loss or any win get them too low or too overconfident this season.

Though all four are still young in the scheme of college tennis, they will be expected to play with more poise and show a greater degree of leadership — especially after the Illini graduated two seniors, Bruno Abdelnour and Stephen Hoh.

With only three juniors and the sophomore quartet, Dancer met with the players individually to make it clear that the bar was set much higher this season, and they would each be responsible for setting examples for their teammates. 

“All of us are willing to try and lead this team, and when we take that role, the culture of the team only gets better,” Childers said. “That’s the type of culture we want to build on this team: one where everyone wants to step up, and one where everyone is pushing each other to get better.”

One of the biggest benefits for the four sophomores is the familiarity level they have with another. 

Three of them — Hiltzik, Page and Childers — were recruited out of the Chicago area, while Jesse was recruited out of Mequon, Wisc. 

Prior to arriving on campus, all four had a great deal of experience playing together and competing against each other in high school.

Childers said the familiarity with each other’s personalities and playing styles leads to little conflict and personal issues to act as distractions from their on-the-court play. 

The sense of community among all four makes it easier to develop chemistry more naturally and authentically, and they expect to only grow closer as all four live together in same apartment.

The 2013-14 season will pressure the four sophomores as the Illini aim to take back the Big Ten crown from rival Ohio State and return to the top 10 of the national rankings.

“We still have pretty high expectations for this season, if not higher expectations than last year,” Page said. “While we definitely fell short last season, we have gotten better and prepared ourselves to make a run this year.”

Dan can be reached at [email protected] and @danescalona77.