U tennis: pack a heavyjacket and a pair of shorts

Michael Rand

The Gophers men’s tennis team’s fortunes this year closely mirrored Minnesota’s climate: The team went from winter, to summer, back to winter and then hit summer again.
There was no in-between time for the Gophers, no fall or spring equinox. For that reason, the season can be looked at in some respects as a huge letdown and in others as a tremendous success.
Minnesota was ranked No. 3 in the nation before it had played a match. Everything appeared to be in place for the Gophers to make a strong run at their fifth consecutive Big Ten title: Their top three singles players — Lars Hjarrand, Ben Gabler and Erik Donley — had combined for 81 wins the previous year. And even though their bottom three singles players were all freshmen, they were all highly capable of winning matches.
But because of injuries and a grueling schedule that featured several of the top teams in the nation, the Gophers got off to a horrendous season start. Six consecutive losses against non-conference opponents didn’t completely deflate the players, but it did make them shake their heads in bewilderment.
But just as 80-degree temperatures and an extended visit from the sun signalled a beginning of summer in Minneapolis this weekend, so the start of Big Ten season signified a turnaround for the Gophers.
Minnesota quietly got on a roll and finished its conference schedule 8-2, good enough to earn the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten tournament. With an overall record at the time of 10-10, however, the Gophers were still a far cry from their four consecutive championship years. In those seasons, Minnesota combined to go 94-17.
Still, the Gophers were a good bet to win another conference title. But injuries to Donley, Adam Selkirk and Tom Chicoine and an overall mediocre performance at the tournament did Minnesota in. After barely defeating No. 7 seed Michigan State, the Gophers lost to Illinois in the semifinals, seemingly sending the team home to a chilly off-season.
The players were stunned after the loss. It wasn’t denial; it was just a numbness that accompanied losing something the team worked so hard to win.
But in a season of odd twists and turns — most of them cruel to the Gophers — the final and most welcome bend was yet to come.
By virtue of their strong regular-season finish and decent showing at the conference tournament, the Gophers earned a bid to the NCAA Region IV Tournament, which started two weeks after the Big Ten tournament.
Despite being the lowest seed of six teams in the tournament, Minnesota beat three consecutive higher-ranked teams — Notre Dame, Michigan and Northwestern — to win the regional title. The Gophers fought off match points in each of the three matches, using a combination of determination and luck.
“It was about time something good happened to us,” said coach David Geatz.
Geatz said the Gophers’ tough non-conference schedule paid off in the form of the region title.
Most importantly, winning the title gave Minnesota an automatic berth in the NCAA national tournament — a trip the team hadn’t made since 1989.
The Gophers were beaten badly by first-round opponent Mississippi in the 95-degree heat of Athens, Ga. But just making the tournament was enough to change the team’s outlook on the season from disappointment to satisfaction.
Perhaps ending the season in Georgia was appropriate in more than one way: Being among the top 16 teams in the country and playing in the sweltering heat was a final reminder that the Gophers had ended the season in summer, not winter.

Notes: The Gophers’ team season is over, but Hjarrand, the No. 1 singles player and 29th-ranked player in the country, is still competing in the NCAA Singles Championship. The Norway native remained in Athens after the team lost Saturday and will play George Bastl of South Florida at 1 p.m. today in the first round. If Hjarrand wins, he will play again Thursday afternoon.
Hjarrand, a junior, has been named to the All-Big Ten team in each of his three seasons and won the Rolex Region IV singles tournament in November.