en’s tennis team rebounds to take fifth

by Ken Zimmer

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The Gophers men’s tennis team not only failed to bring a Big Ten championship home this weekend, but it also had its worst showing since 1990.
The team entered the weekend full of confidence and believed it had a realistic chance of winning the conference tournament. Although the Gophers had finished a mere 5-5 and placed sixth in the Big Ten during the regular season, they were competitive, losing four of the five by one point.
All season long, coaches and players preached the team was better than its record indicated and had the talent to win the title.
“We feel like we’ve been underachieving all season,” Martin Michalowski said during the first-round match. “We know we’re better than No. 6 in the Big Ten. It’s not just wishful thinking, either. We really believe that.”
But the inconsistency that plagued the Gophers all season resurfaced, and their dream of a championship was woken early as Purdue beat them 4-2 in the first round.
The team gathered its composure enough to win its final two matches against Indiana and Wisconsin for a fifth-place finish, but it was little consolation for the high hopes it had entering the weekend.
The Gophers found themselves in a familiar role in the first round, trying the spoil the Boilermakers’ post-season for the second consecutive year.
Last year, the team defeated Purdue in the first round of both the Big Ten tournament and the NCAA Regional tournament. Assistant coach P.J. Priest said he thought Minnesota’s past success might be intimidating to Purdue, especially after beating them just two weeks prior to the match.
“I think these guys are scared of us,” Priest said.
Purdue had other things in mind, and planned on using its past lapses against Minnesota as a tool of encouragement for a championship run of its own.
“We’re not intimidated at all,” Purdue senior Steve Brizendine said. “Losing to them last year gives us more motivation to win. It’s the exact same thing, just a different season. We’re here looking to win the Big Ten.”
The Boilermakers put their motivation to work early, winning the doubles point easily. When Adam Selkirk and Michalowski fell at No. 2 and No. 3 singles, the deficit became too much for the Gophers to overcome.
Martin Kristoffersen lost 6-4 in the second set of the deciding match to Brizendine, and Purdue had its revenge. All-conference recipient Tom Chicoine and freshman Jon Svensson were the lone Gophers victors.
Although the team was disappointed, coach David Geatz wasn’t surprised that the Gophers post-season luck ran out.
“Purdue played well, but they’re probably a better team than us. They had a better record all year long,” Geatz said. “I don’t know why we thought we could come in here and pull another rabbit out of a hat. We’ve been doing that for too many years.”
On Saturday, the team faced seventh-seeded Indiana. The match seemed like just a formality to get to the fifth-place match, as the Gophers beat the Hoosiers 6-1 six days earlier.
However, Minnesota found itself in early trouble once again, as Indiana dominated the No. 1 and No. 2 doubles positions to take the first point.
After the doubles matches, Geatz gathered his team together and expressed his disgust at the way Minnesota was playing.
“That was just a pathetic display,” he said. “That was the sorriest Gophers doubles match I’ve ever witnessed — flat and demoralized.”
Geatz admitted he couldn’t repeat what was said in the team huddle, but it must have worked, as Minnesota again crushed the Hoosiers in straight sets at four singles positions and went away with a 4-2 victory.
The final match against Wisconsin provided more than an opportunity for a fifth-place finish; it also gave Minnesota a chance to extend its post-season because five Big Ten teams normally qualify for the NCAA Regional tournament.
Minnesota had a new look against the Badgers as Michalowski, a captain, took a seat for the first time all season in dual competition.
Michalowski had been struggling in the tournament, losing both of his singles matches in straight sets. He was forced to cheer for the team on the sidelines as Svensson took his spot against David Chang — a player Michalowski had beaten earlier this year.
“I don’t understand (Geatz’s logic). I can’t do much about it, but I beat the guy three weeks ago and I think I would beat him again,” Michalowski said. “As a captain it gets to me. You want to be a leader on the court, and you can’t do that on the sidelines, so it’s definitely disappointing to play.”
The team’s depth made up the difference, and the Gophers went on to a 4-2 victory. Minnesota will find out later this week if it has been selected for regionals.
“I think we’ll get in,” Geatz said. “We beat Wisconsin this time out, finished with a better record in the Big Ten, we’re ranked higher nationally and we have better wins.”
But regardless of whether the team advances, and even amid the disappointment of another title-less tournament, the Gophers are optimistic for next year.
“Next season, I’d say we’ll have a much stronger team. We’ll have all the same players, but we’ll be a year better,” freshman Tyson Parry said. “I think the freshmen learned a lot this year, and we all know what to expect. We should be one of the top teams in the conference next year.”