Illinois women’s tennis prepares for Big Ten tournament

By Thomas Donley

The spring of 2014 has been a roller coaster ride of sorts for the Illinois women’s tennis team. This weekend marks the end of that ride as the postseason starts Thursday morning with a match against Nebraska at the Big Ten tournament in Evanston, Ill.

After starting the season 4-1 with its only loss a tightly contested one at then-No.23 Notre Dame, Illinois faltered against some beatable teams in Oklahoma and Wichita State. The Illini closed out their nonconference schedule by picking up a pair of victories at the Blue Gray Tennis Classic, including a win over Oklahoma State, currently ranked No. 25 in the nation.

Illinois started out its Big Ten season with losses to Northwestern and Purdue, but surged back to win four straight matches over Southern Illinois, Indiana, Penn State and Ohio State. The Illini followed that win streak with a three-match losing streak to Michigan State, Michigan and Iowa to fall to eighth place in the Big Ten. They closed out the regular season by winning their final three matches against Nebraska, Minnesota and Wisconsin to finish 13-9 and 6-5 in the conference, good for a three-way tie for fifth place with Indiana and Minnesota. Illinois holds the tiebreaker over the Hoosiers and Gophers, having beaten both teams in the regular season.

“I’m really proud of how the girls responded,” head coach Michelle Dasso said. “We finished the regular season playing well and with pride.”

In their first postseason match, the Illini will face Nebraska (8-16, 0-11), just 11 days after they defeated the Cornhuskers 4-2 on Senior Day. Seniors Allison Falkin and Misia Kedzierski, junior Melissa Kopinski and freshman Jerricka Boone picked up singles victories in the teams’ first meeting, as Boone’s defeat of Hannah Sulz sealed the win for the Illini and eliminated the need to play doubles.

Illinois will look to hand the Cornhuskers their 13th straight loss. Nebraska has not beaten a nationally ranked team all spring.

If the Illini win Thursday, they will face Purdue, which earned a first-round bye with its fourth-place finish. The Boilermakers enter the postseason having lost two of their last three regular season matches.

On March 9, Illinois dropped a 5-2 contest at Purdue, with freshmen Boone and Alexis Casati taking the only Illini points. The Boilermakers swept the doubles match. The Illini also faced Purdue at home in November during the Midwest Blast. The teams’ match was unscored.

The Illini freshmen have played a prominent role in the team’s success this spring. Casati and Louise Kwong led the team in singles wins, with 14 and 15.

Dasso has rotated her doubles teams frequently over the last four weeks, but has settled on a lineup for the postseason, a change welcomed by the players.

“It helps out a lot,” Kopinski said. “We get to practice together all week and we know who we play, so we’re good.”

The Illini will likely need to win at least two matches in the Big Ten tournament to qualify for the NCAA tournament, which, at this point, seems like a real possibility.

“I think our chances are good,” Falkin said. “We’re on the bubble, but we’ve been playing well lately.”

Illinois knows that in the Big Ten this spring, nothing is a given. Nine of the 12 teams in the middle of the Big Ten standings have either beaten teams with better records or lost to teams with worse records.  

“Right now, each team in the Big Ten is 0-0,” Dasso said. “We’ve got to start fresh. We’ve got to believe.”

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