Illinois men’s tennis heads into Big Ten Tournament

When college tennis fans think of the Big Ten, there’s one program that comes to mind immediately. The Ohio State Buckeyes are a national powerhouse and have asserted their dominance over the rest of the Big Ten for years. Ohio State has won seven of the last eight conference tournaments, only leaving without the conference tournament trophy in 2012. 

The David to Ohio State’s Goliath that year was Brad Dancer’s Illinois squad. The Illini have consistently been a top-15 program in the nation, but it’s hard to compare to the dominance of the Buckeyes. 

The 2012 performance is something Illinois will be looking to repeat this weekend at the 2014 tournament in East Lansing, MI. No. 12 Illinois is the two seed in the tournament and Ohio State is the top seed. 

The conference title Illinois captured in 2012 is something that has been mentioned recently around the Atkins Tennis Center. 

“They didn’t have a scoreboard there (in 2012), so nobody knew how the other guys were doing and I tell our guys that all the time, I think that was a big factor for us. Like we just went out and played and we weren’t worried about what was happening,” Dancer said. 

Although the ultimate goal going into the weekend is to face off with No. 2 Ohio State in the tournament championship, Illinois will have to battle to get there. 

The Big Ten has been one of the top conferences in the country this season, currently with three teams in the nation’s top-25. The Illini finished the conference season with a 9-2 record, but actually only lost one match. A 4-3 win over Penn State was overturned by the conference after Penn State filed a lineup challenge. 

By gaining the second seed, the Illini were given a first round bye and will play the winner of Minnesota and Indiana on Friday afternoon. If Illinois advances to the semifinals, they would likely face Penn State. The Nittany Lions will match up with either Michigan or Wisconsin in their first match. 

In regular season matchups with Penn State and Ohio State, the Illini weren’t at full strength. No. 8 Jared Hiltzik had just returned from a nagging wrist injury and wasn’t playing anywhere near his full ability yet. Since that road trip, Hiltzik has been on a tear and is showing major signs of returning to his old self, having won his last 7 singles matches.

“The more matches I got to play, the more game footage I got to watch to see how I looked on the court,” Hiltzik said. 

With Hiltzik’s reemergence, the Illini possess a duo at the top of their singles lineup that is debatably one of the best in the country between Hiltzik and No. 17 Farris Gosea. Gosea played in the top singles spot in Hiltzik’s absence and the two have been switching between the top spots regularly within the past few weeks.

“I’m feeling confident, my body’s feeling good, so it’s all looking good for me,” Gosea said. 

While the singles lineup is looking as strong as it has for Illinois all season, doubles will be the area the team will have to find consistency in to move deep into the conference tournament. The No. 5 ranked duo of Ross Guignon and Tim Kopinski will have to establish the tone early for Illinois, and Dancer will have to set the right pairings to succeed. 

Although Ohio State has dominated the conference tournament in recent history, the Illini know exactly what it will take to bring home the hardware and aren’t shying away from the challenge at all. Playing Ohio State doesn’t intimidate them. 

“It’s going to be OSU hopefully in the final and that’s going to be really exciting for us,” Gosea said. 

Brett can be reached at [email protected] and @Blerner10.