Tom Chicoine made only one mistake on his recruiting visit to Minnesota last year, and it was a big one.
A student host took the prospective tennis player to the Minnesota-Wisconsin hockey game at Mariucci Arena. Chicoine was sitting next to other Minnesota recruits and sophomore tennis player Ben Gabler when Chicoine’s big chance arrived.
Gabler was picked to participate in the traditional contest that takes place after the second period at Gophers games, in which a spectator stands at the blue line and gets three chances to shoot a puck into a net almost completely blocked by a sheet of plywood. Gabler, however, politely declined, and Chicoine piped up.
“I said I wanted to go down,” Chicoine said. “They asked me if I was a student here, and I said, ‘Uh, yeah.'”
Then Chicoine was asked where he was from, and, to his lasting regret, he decided this was the time to tell the truth.
He was standing near center ice when he was introduced to the throng as, “Tom Chicoine, from Neenah, Wis.” He had been exposed as a McCoy in the land of Hatfields. To make matters worse, the Hatfields happened to be playing the McCoys in hockey that night.
Chicoine’s reception couldn’t have been any worse than if he had run on stage during a Metallica concert and announced to the crowd that he really, really liked Yanni. He was booed unmercifully and probably heard a few words that may have ended in “head” but didn’t necessarily begin with “cheese.”
Chicoine emphatically thrust his arms into the air as a playful rebuke, then proceeded to miss all three shots. He exited to a slightly softer chorus of boos.
“I didn’t think he was going to come here,” Gophers coach David Geatz said jokingly.
Chicoine shrugged off the initial less-than-warm welcome and enrolled at the University. So far, he hasn’t deserved any boos. Nor have any of his fellow freshmen, who, along with Chicoine, are adapting very well to their first collegiate tennis season.
The Gophers have six freshmen on the team, three of whom start regularly. Chicoine, Adam Selkirk and Martin Kristofferson comprise the fourth, fifth and sixth spots, respectively, in Minnesota’s lineup.
The Gophers, 2-8, take on Wisconsin in Madison on Sunday afternoon.
Surprisingly, the newcomers have prospered while the older players have faltered slightly. All three freshmen have dual match records of .500 or better, while Gabler, at 5-5, is the only one of the three starting upperclassmen who doesn’t have a losing record.
To the freshmen, though, the disparity isn’t shocking at all.
“Minnesota is sort of known for its four through six spots,” Selkirk said. “We want the other guys to know they can count on us.”
“The top three guys have to play guys highly ranked in the country all the time,” Chicoine said.
Chicoine, who was ranked 16th in the nation in juniors while in high school, is the highest-rated recruit Minnesota has ever landed. He’s lived up to his promise thus far, collecting 17 singles wins, the most on the team.
Selkirk and Kristofferson are no slouches, either, but Geatz still was able to avoid a lot of legwork in recruiting them.
Geatz knew Selkirk’s father from their days on the junior tennis circuit, which helped make Minnesota an easier sell. Selkirk has been coming on of late, winning both his matches at the Ice Volleys in Bloomington last weekend to boost his dual match record to 5-5.
Kristofferson, who is from Portsgrunn, Norway, was even easier to get. In fact, it was more a case of Kristofferson recruiting Minnesota.
He was acquainted with the Gophers’ top player, Lars Hjarrand, who hails from Oslo.
“I knew Lars from tennis,” he said. “We played in some of the same tournaments, and he told me how great Minnesota was. I sent Dave a letter, and he asked Lars about me.”
The answer from Hjarrand was “pretty good,” and Kristofferson was aboard. He struggled with a shoulder injury this fall but has made the most of his chances lately. Like Selkirk, Kristofferson swept his matches at the Ice Volleys to improve to 4-2 this winter.
Suddenly, Chicoine and the other freshmen have become crowd favorites.