Only one year ago, first place in the Big Ten seemed so far away for rookie Minnesota women’s tennis coach Tyler Thomson and his squad.
It was 10 places away, to be exact.
Now in his second season at Minnesota, Thomson and his team can squint at where they were just a dozen months ago from that place which seemed so far away at the time – first.
With a pair of victories at home this weekend versus No. 43 Ohio State and Penn State, the 31st-ranked Gophers (14-5, 7-1 Big Ten) can capture their first-ever Big Ten title.
The Gophers’ confident coach knew the additions of transfer student Angela Buergis and freshman Nischela Reddy would strengthen the team and provide depth. But to find the type of success he and his team currently enjoy, they had to endure the opposite end of the spectrum.
“I wouldn’t say it was a disappointing year,” Thomson said of the 6-16 season. “It was a challenging year. We just didn’t have the depth in our lineup to really compete legitimately.
“But there was some encouragement among the coaching staff that things were going to get better. We were just going to take some lumps for awhile.”
This optimism turned into reality with the additions of the new players, the improving health of another and an all-around more mature squad.
Junior Amy Thomas – who Thomson calls “one of the fiercest competitors in the Big Ten” – has played through pain this season, but played nonetheless. She was awarded a medical redshirt last year because of a shoulder injury and has battled back problems lately.
With the infusion of three individuals into a team playing a six-player sport, its no wonder things have changed in a big way for Minnesota.
But Thomson also points to the overall improved versatility of his athletes. Case in point, he refers to charging the net.
“I’m a firm believer in coming forward on the court and finishing points at the net,” Thomson said. “Neither Amy Thomas nor Nischela Reddy felt terribly comfortable coming in. But now they both do it extremely well.”
Improved and poised to win their first-ever Big Ten title, the Gophers must still face a pair of formidable foes.
Ohio State (12-8, 6-2) followed Minnesota’s lead in downing Big Ten powerhouse and 23rd-ranked Northwestern 4-3 on Sunday, just a day after falling to No. 14 Kentucky by the same margin. Until the Gophers upset them two weeks ago, the former Wildcats rode a 29-game conference winning streak.
The Lions (7-11, 2-5), in turn, squandered a match point in losing to the Buckeyes earlier this season.
Thomson presages about the difficulty of this weekend’s matches because he doesn’t want his team to overlook them. Overall, he said he has a tough time reading how his team is viewing their big weekend.
Junior Valerie Vladea provided some answers.
“We are thinking about the championship but we’re taking it one match at a time,” Vladea said. “We had a scare at Indiana in doubles by taking them too easy.
“We’re all excited about it and looking forward to it. It’s not our main focus at all, though.”
Regardless of how the Gophers finish, the only person who won’t be surprised to see his team finish atop the conference is Thomson, the same person who was nearest to them when they were clawing upward from the figurative dungeon of the Big Ten.
Aaron Blake covers tennis and welcomes comments at [email protected]