Illinois men’s tennis takes home Big Ten Championship

It all came down to Aron Hiltzik.

Leading 5-4 with the serve and a deuce advantage, he took a moment to settle himself before one last game against Ohio State’s Hunter Callahan.

Hiltzik outdueled Callahan from the baseline and threw down his hat in celebration as the Illinois men’s tennis team swarmed him to celebrate its first Big Ten tournament championship since 2012. No. 63 Hiltzik secured the win for the Illini, who conquered arch-rival Ohio State in a 4-0 sweep.

“Of course you have nerves … but once you’re in the moment, locked in the zone, you just play,” Hiltzik said. “To win this on home soil, to see (head coach) Brad Dancer in tears, it just means a lot to everyone.”

The host Illini swept all three opponents in an impressive run through the Big Ten Tournament at the Atkins Tennis Center. They knocked off Iowa in the quarterfinals and Northwestern in the semifinals.

Sunday provided a championship showdown between the conference’s top tennis powers. Illinois and Ohio State have taken the last 11 conference tournaments. Over those years, the Illini have won the tournament three times and been eliminated by the Buckeyes the other eight.

Before this season, Illinois had only beaten Ohio State three times since 2005. On Sunday, it earned its third victory over the Buckeyes this season. A week ago, Illinois shared the regular season Big Ten title with Ohio State and Minnesota. The tournament proved the team as the conference champion outright.

“We shared the Big Ten title and it just didn’t feel right,” said senior Ross Guignon. “But it got us emotionally fired up to settle it once and for all this weekend.”

The Illini got off to a fast start with their doubles play against a strong Ohio State team with two ranked pairs. Senior Farris Gosea and freshman Aleks Vukic claimed the first victory for Illinois with an 8-2 win over No. 85 Hunter Callahan and Chris Diaz.

Ohio State fought back on Court 3, where Matt Mendez and Mikael Torpegaard defeated Hiltzik and Guignon. But a few short minutes later, No. 68 Tim Kopinski and junior Jared Hiltzik claimed the doubles point with their 8-5 over No. 4 Kevin Metka and Ralf Steinbach.

“Our guys came out really dialed in and focused. (Kopinski) and Jared in the doubles were just exceptional. They played like men out there; they were animals,” Dancer said. “(They) dialed in singles … (and) got a little into scoreboard watching in that second set. Other than that, our guys stayed calm under pressure at the end.”

Gosea and Vukic were dominant over the weekend for the Illini. They went 2-0 in doubles and claimed three singles victories in each of the Illini’s matches.

For the second day in a row, No. 66 Vukic took home the first singles win for Illinois. He dictated the match against Ohio State’s Kevin Metka, 6-1, 6-3. No. 45 Gosea defeated No. 47 Torpegaard 6-3, 6-2.

But on Sunday, the man of the match for Illinois was Aron Hiltzik. The freshman was cool under pressure as he clinched a Big Ten championship. In the first set, Hiltzik had taken an early 4-1 lead but Callahan fought back to make it as close 6-4. In the second set, Callahan nearly tied it 5-5 as the two traded advantages in the deuce. But Hiltzik finished off Callahan and the Buckeyes with what he called “focused” play.

“You work so hard for such a long period of time,” Dancer said. “For these guys to have this moment in front of the incredible Net Nuts and the fans who came out today, it’s just magical.”

cmkenne2@dailyillini.com

@ChrisKennedy_4