Gophers play the spoiler at Region IV tournament

Aaron Kirscht

Everyone knows about the neighbor who drops by unexpectedly, looking to borrow a pair of hedge clippers, but then announces he’s staying for dinner.
His appearance is unwelcome and annoying, but he can’t take a hint. So get used to it: He’s going to be around for awhile.
The Gophers men’s tennis team, which headed into this weekend’s NCAA Region IV tournament as the defending champion, is developing a similar reputation. After a season in which its opponents dropped hints that Minnesota is no longer one of the region’s elite teams, the Gophers responded with an unexpected run to the finals.
But just as that neighbor has got to go home sometime, so did the Gophers. Northwestern, which fell to Minnesota (12-14) in the finals of last year’s tournament, put the Gophers back in their place with a 4-2 win. The Wildcats (20-6) now advance to tennis’ Sweet 16 in Los Angeles, Calif.
The Gophers trudged through one of their worst seasons in recent history, compiling a dismal 8-12 regular-season record, but recovered late to pull off a string of upsets. Wins over Purdue and Indiana in the Big Ten tournament last month propelled Minnesota to a No. 5 seed in the six-team regional tournament.
Their first-round opponent? Purdue. And just as Gophers coach David Geatz promised his team would deliver a victory over the Boilermakers (18-7) in the Big Tens, he said he expected similar results this weekend.
The Gophers came through and then some. Minnesota spanked Purdue 4-1 in the Region IV quarterfinals on Friday, even after it lost the doubles point. The Gophers’ comeback win — only the second time all season they’ve won after losing the doubles point — was fueled by No. 2 Tom Chicoine, No. 3 Ben Gabler, No. 4 Adam Selkirk and No. 6 Robin Rutili, all of whom won easily.
The following day, Minnesota knocked top-seeded Notre Dame (19-6) off its perch with a 4-2 semifinal win. As the No. 6 seed in last year’s tournament, the Gophers upset the Irish 4-3 in the first round.
This time, the Gophers grabbed the doubles point and notched victories at Nos. 2, 4 and 5, for the win.
That set up the possibility of facing tournament host Illinois — the team that beat the Gophers in the second round of the Big Tens and the team that Geatz said he feared most in the final. But Northwestern, which lost to the Illini in the Big Ten final, took care of that with a 4-0 revenge thumping on Saturday.
With the top two teams out of the tournament, the Gophers and Wildcats met in the championship match for the second consecutive year.
Northwestern beat Minnesota 5-2 on the Gophers’ home court April 11. Minnesota won the doubles point but only Adam Selkirk could eke out a win at No. 4 singles. The Wildcats would go on to complete an undefeated Big Ten season (10-0).
Northwestern’s singles dominance held up the second time around, winning three of five matches, and the Gophers’ stumbled in doubles.

Note: With the loss to Northwestern, the collegiate careers of seniors Lars Hjarrand and Ben Gabler — both of whom finished with sub-par seasons — came to an end. Both have expressed an interest in trying out the professional tennis tour.