Gophers hope to find their winning ways

For the Gophers men’s tennis team, winning has become routine.
No surprise. Minnesota has finished atop the Big Ten conference four of the last five years. But this season, the routine has been shattered; the Gophers have struggled to a 5-8 record, 1-3 in the Big Ten.
“I’m not used to losing, and the guys on the team aren’t used to losing,” coach David Geatz said. “By our standards, those are very poor results.
“It’s been a mysterious year.”
Geatz called this season the most frustrating one he’s had since taking over the program nine years ago. Eligibility problems for an incoming freshman and the loss of their No. 1 singles player, Lars Hjarrand, for the first two-thirds of the season have left the Gophers scrambling to pick up the slack.
More often than not, Geatz said, that hasn’t happened — and he’s at a loss for answers why.
“I’ve got a million theories, but I’ve never been through it so I don’t know what to do,” Geatz said. “Maybe I overestimated how good we were.
“I knew Lars wasn’t going to be playing for us, but I thought we had enough gas in the tank to win anyway.”
Hjarrand, a three-time all-Big Ten selection, had one class left before graduation but put off finishing his degree until this quarter so he could be eligible to play in the Big Ten championships later this month.
In his place, senior captain Ben Gabler, who typically played in the No. 2 slot, had to make the jump. But Geatz said Gabler, who posted a 1-9 record at No. 1, may have lost some confidence.
“Ben just needs a little boost,” he said. “He was in the Big Ten finals last year. The guy can play.”
Geatz hopes Hjarrand’s return this weekend against Michigan State and Michigan will give the team some much-needed stability for the stretch drive of the season.
“Just seeing Lars on the court is going to help us a lot,” he said.
Sophomore Tom Chicoine, who leads the team with a 21-8 record (including 3-0 in singles), will play at No. 2 this weekend, with Gabler at No. 3.
Doubles play has been the Gophers’ strength this season, having won the doubles point in every match this season. The No. 3 team of junior Robin Rutili and freshman Martin Michalowski leads Minnesota with a 9-2 record.
With their season-ending run last season that led to the second NCAA regional championship in Geatz’s tenure, the Gophers proved they can bounce back from a slow start.
Minnesota won its last six matches to finish the 1996 season, and Geatz said a similar performance will be necessary to regain the familiar Big Ten title.
Next weekend, the Gophers will host Northwestern — currently undefeated in Big Ten play at 4-0 — and Wisconsin before finishing the season on the road at Purdue and Illinois.
Minnesota’s next four matches, including those this weekend, will be played at either the Fourth Street courts on the University campus or at the 98th Street Racquet Club in Bloomington.
“If you look at our record and results and see how bad we’ve been playing, some might say (a Big Ten title is) not a realistic goal,” he said. “Right now nobody thinks it’s realistic but me.
“We have to salvage our season. If we can get a Big Ten ring out of the deal and get into the NCAAs, we’ll still have had a successful year.”