Melissa Kopinski ends the season on a high note

By Thomas Donley

Editor’s note: The Daily Illini sports desk sits down Sunday nights and decides which Illinois athlete or coach is our Illini of the Week. Athletes and coaches are evaluated by individual performance and contribution to team success.

After a humbling 4-3 loss to Iowa on April 12 to extend their losing streak to three matches, Melissa Kopinski and the Illinois women’s tennis team had hit a low point. With the team sitting at 10-9 in the spring and occupying eighth place in the Big Ten with a 3-5 conference record, the Illini’s chances of making the NCAA tournament looked slim.

Head coach Michelle Dasso held a two-hour team meeting, during which the Illini voiced their feelings concerning the season up to that point and their goals for the rest of the year. They came out revitalized against Nebraska the next day and have not looked back, winning their final three regular-season matches to finish fifth in the Big Ten, one win short of earning a first-round bye in this week’s conference tournament.

“We were kind of down on that loss (to Iowa),” Kopinski said. “But after this weekend, we got two road victories and we’re ready for Evanston.”

As a result of Illinois’ current win streak, it will avoid a rematch with Iowa in the first round of the conference tournament. Instead, the Illini will face last-place Nebraska on Thursday. The Illini downed the Cornhuskers 4-2 in the teams’ regular-season meeting.

That team meeting and Illinois’ coinciding three-match win streak came at an opportune time, as the Illini found themselves dropping eight spots in the national rankings over the course of its three-match losing streak to Michigan State, Michigan and Iowa. They have since regained six spots, climbing from No. 43 to No. 37, heading into the postseason and sit more comfortably on the NCAA tournament bubble than they did after playing.

After battling bicep tendonitis early in the season, Kopinski has been a driving force behind Illinois’ most recent win streak. The All-American doubles player has gone a combined 4-0 in singles and doubles play over that span in her attempt to lead the Illini to their second tournament berth in her three-year career. She has won each of her last three singles matches in straight sets, allowing her opponent to win more than three games in a set only once, in her 6-0, 7-5 win over Minnesota’s Jessika Mozia.

“Getting her healthy, she’s been playing better tennis,” head coach Michelle Dasso said. “She’s been able to practice fully, and that’s been a big difference. And down the stretch, this is when it counts. Hopefully everybody stays healthy.”

In building a personal three-match singles win streak, Kopinski has applied pressure to her recent opponents, handing Mozia her fifth straight singles loss and Wisconsin’s Lauren Burich her ninth loss in a row.

Due to the different match format Illinois used against Nebraska and Dasso’s decision to give her some rest against Wisconsin, Kopinski has only played doubles once over the last three matches, contributing an 8-5 win with Allison Falkin against Minnesota.

Kopinski has battled for Illinois this spring: In seven of her 10 losses, she has either forced a third set or at least pushed a set past six games. Her wins were even more dominant, requiring a third set to put away only three opponents all spring.

While 2014 statistically has not been Kopinski’s best collegiate season, her effectiveness does not lie solely in the box score. She has also had a positive influence on her team’s chemistry on and off the court.

Qualifying for the NCAA tournament is certainly an achievement which the Illini are working toward, but Kopinski’s focus lies on the task currently at hand: making a deep run in the conference tournament.

“We knew that we wanted to end on a good note,” Kopinski said. “We had pretty good luck this weekend, and now, with the Big Ten Tournament, we’re taking it one match at a time, so we’ll see how that goes.”

Thomas can be reached at [email protected] and @donley_thomas.