Women, men approach final weekend with contrasting focuses

Neither team can win the Big Ten’s regular-season title, but both are playing well down the stretch.

Charlie Armitz

The Gophers men’s and women’s tennis teams have enjoyed similarly successful spring seasons to date, but entering the final weekend of conference play, their approaches are polar opposites.

The women, who sit in the middle of the Big Ten at 4-5, seek the sixth seed in the conference’s tournament April 26-29. They can ensure that spot with wins against Nebraska and Iowa this weekend, but they could fall as low as 10th with two losses.

The men, who boast a 6-3 conference record and could finish as high as second, aren’t as concerned with postseason play as they prepare to face the same two opponents.

Much of that can be attributed to a difference in coaching style. While women’s head coach Tyler Thomson calculates seeds and matchups and reacts accordingly, men’s head coach Geoff Young prioritizes his team’s improvements on a weekly basis.

Young said the team is “trying hard not to” look ahead to postseason play, which includes the NCAA tournament in May as well as the Big Ten tournament.

While the men are expected to beat the No. 71 Huskers and unranked Hawkeyes this weekend, their chances of winning the Big Ten tournament are slim, as they will likely have to defeat third-ranked Ohio State, which has won 89 consecutive conference matches.

In recent years, the men have lacked the star power to consistently compete with the Buckeyes in singles — which makes winning the doubles point crucial.

Young said the doubles point feels more important because it’s the first point, which everyone at the match can observe.

The men have won just two of their last five doubles points after starting 10-2 in doubles. They have lost seven of their last eight matches at the second doubles position.

“We’re trying to continue to work on the fundamentals of doubles and sticking to those in the heat of the battle,” Young said.

The women’s team has also found strength in depth, and Thomson said his group is playing well and has improved with every weekend of conference play.

But the team has suffered a series of injuries lately that may have contributed to two close losses. Thomson said only two of the team’s 11 members are playing without an injury this week.

The No. 18 Huskers present on Friday as tough of a test as Minnesota has faced this season, and the Gophers have struggled against higher-ranked teams in the Big Ten.

Top-25 teams Michigan, Northwestern and Illinois have combined to beat them in 17 of 21 individual matches. Minnesota’s best conference win came in a sweep last weekend against then-No. 47 Indiana.

Key wins at second singles and second doubles by Alexa Palen propelled the Gophers to the win, but Palen could miss this weekend with an injury. She sat out in singles in last Sunday’s 4-3 loss to then-No. 34 Purdue.

But Thomson isn’t short on confidence for his shorthanded team.

“I haven’t calculated if we lose both [matches] this weekend because I’m pretty confident we won’t,” he said. “I think we have a great chance of winning both.”