Tournament story-lines for Illinois men’s tennis

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Illinois’ Jared Hiltzik hits the ball during a match against Texas on Feb. 9. 

Now that the No. 12 seed Illinois men’s tennis team officially knows that it will be making its 19th straight NCAA Tournament appearance starting May 9, there are many things to look forward to. 

Head coach Brad Dancer will be no stranger to coaching in the field of 64, as he has reached the tournament in all nine of his seasons with Illinois. He has also brought the Illini to six Sweet 16 appearances through his first eight seasons. Dancer’s team is now fully ready to head into the tournament, and has its sights set on making a return to Athens, GA. in pursuit of its first national title since taking home the hardware in 2003. 

Home, Sweet Home: 

The top 16 seeds in the country are seeded, and host the first and second rounds of the tournament. The Illini, who were awarded the No. 12 seed, will once again play postseason tennis at the Atkins Tennis Center. Playing at home should be a huge advantage for this Illinois team. The Illini didn’t lose a home match during the regular season, going a perfect 11-0. The program also never lacks fan support, with the stands of the outdoor courts regularly packed to capacity. The players and coaching staff have acknowledged their home court advantage throughout the season, so the opportunity to play at home once again is something that excites Dancer. 

“The fans make such a difference here,” Dancer said. “Whether it’s the I-L-L chants or the players’ familiarity with the surface, I think it’s a great place for us and one where we’re comfortable.” 

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    Familiar Foes: 

    The Illini have the potential to see a few familiar opponents early on in this year’s tournament. Their first match will be against Ball State, a nonconference team that Illinois swept 4-0 back in March. If the Illini can get through their regional, they would likely face off with another familiar foe in the Sweet 16. No. 5 seed Baylor beat Illinois at a neutral site in California, sweeping the Illini, 4-0. The Illinois lineup didn’t have All-Big Ten first team selection, Jared Hiltzik for either of those two matches. Whether the Illini have seen their opponents previously or not, Dancer knows the road will be tough regardless. 

    “We’ve got good teams all the way in front of us, so we know we’ve got some big challenges,” Dancer said.

    Georgia on My Mind: 

    If the Illini can get two wins at home they’ll head to the national host site, University of Georgia. Judging by the Illini’s past tournament experiences, this could be good news for them. In both Illinois’ 2003 national championship and 2007 runner-up finishes, Athens was the host. Getting back and making another deep tournament run is exactly what the Illini will be training for leading up to the tournament.

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