Illinois men’s tennis walks away from Big Ten Tournament empty-handed

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Illinois’ Jared Hiltzik hits the ball during the match against No. 8 Texas at Atkins Tennis Center on Sunday, Feb. 9.

Championship Sunday at the Big Ten Tournament left an all-too-familiar aftertaste in the mouths of No. 12 Illinois men’s tennis and its head coach Brad Dancer. The appearance in the championship match was Illinois’ seventh in the nine seasons that Dancer has been at the helm.

Although the Illini have made regular appearances in the Big Ten final, Dancer has captured only one conference title in the seven appearances.

The road block to Illinois earning more championships in those situations has stayed the same: No. 2 Ohio State. The Buckeyes brought home eight of the last nine conference championships.

Ohio State won the match 4-2, picking up their second victory over the Illini this season.

The Illini were both hoping and expecting to see the Buckeyes in the tournament championship match, and their wish was granted. The result, however, wasn’t what Illinois had envisioned.

“We were just disappointed. We felt we had an opportunity, and it felt like Ohio State just did a better job than we did preparing for today and certainly in the moment today,” Dancer said.

The Illini rolled through the tournament before their showdown with Ohio State. They beat Indiana 4-1 in the quarterfinals, and Michigan 4-0 in the semifinals. Other than their loss to Ohio State, Illinois picked up only one other Big Ten loss in the regular season. That loss came against Penn State and happened only because of a lineup protest; the Illini didn’t get a chance to avenge the loss to Penn State, as the Nittany Lions were upset by Michigan in the quarterfinals.

The Illini fell victim to an issue they’ve been fighting an uphill battle with all season: doubles.

Illinois won the doubles point in their first two matches of the tournament against Indiana and Michigan but couldn’t get the job done in the championship match. Dancer didn’t feel the team played with enough energy or purpose in doubles all tournament, and that caught up with the Illini in the finals. They dropped the doubles point against Ohio State.

In singles, the Illini were anchored by the top of their lineup throughout the weekend. Big Ten Player of the Year No. 17 Farris Gosea and All-Big Ten first team selection No. 8 Jared Hiltzik both went undefeated over the weekend. Hiltzik’s game seems to be back at full strength after progressively working back from a wrist injury. He defeated Ohio State’s No. 7 Peter Kobelt in singles.

“I have more confidence than I did before, so now I think I’ll be able to have better practices and just improve my game that much more,” Hiltzik said.

Dancer and his squad will now have to set their sights on the NCAA championships, in which they will likely host the first two rounds. While another second place finish in the conference has caused frustration, the Ohio State match can be a learning tool for the Illini.

“If we can’t beat Ohio State in a neutral setting, then we’re not there yet. If that’s not motivation enough for our guys to come back and lock down their finals and prepare as hard as they can for NCAAs, then I don’t know what is,” Dancer said.

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