Men drop heated quarterfinal to Badgers

Minn. was swept by Wis. earlier this year but lost an emotional 4-3 battle Friday.

The Minnesota men’s tennis team that left Iowa City on Saturday morning after losing in the Big Ten quarterfinals – now, without question – little resembles the Gophers squad which started its season by dropping nine of its first 10 matches starting with a Feb. 1 encounter with Denver.

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NCAA Regionals
what: Women’s tennis
when: Time TBA, May 9-10
where: TBD

Nor do they any longer look like the team that started out March with a 0-4 conference record, which cemented them to the bottom of the Big Ten for much of the season.

The way Minnesota played this weekend, coach Geoff Young’s squad looked more like an NCAA tournament qualifier than a team that will end the season with a 7-17 record and no postseason berth.

After making quick work of first-round opponent Michigan State (4-1), the seventh-seeded Gophers – who, rumor has it, were the talk of the weekend among coaches, fans and even line judges because of their competitive play – gave second-seeded Wisconsin everything it wanted and then some, pushing the Badgers to the limit but eventually falling 4-3 early Saturday morning.

“It was crazy,” freshman Tobias Wernet said. “I’ve never been emotionally into it like this in a dual match or in general, in a tennis match.”

The match, which started at 9:15 p.m. and lasted until 1:11. a.m, fittingly came down to a back-and-forth three-set singles match. Wisconsin’s Felipe Bellido overcame a 3-0 third-set deficit to senior Chi Pham to pick up a 4-6, 6-2, 6-4 victory and allow the Badgers to survive a big upset scare on day two of the conference tournament.

The Gophers were in a 2-0 hole early against the favored Badgers after losing the doubles point and then watching as No. 1 singles player Raoul Schwark was downed.

However, in a span of nearly 20 minutes, Minnesota reeled off three straight singles wins, all on adjacent courts – victories by sophomore Dino Bilankov, senior Pierre Dumas and Wernet – to take a 3-2 lead over a team the Gophers had lost to 7-0 two weeks prior.

But the Badgers quickly tied the dual with a three-set win at No. 3 singles and then Bellido rallied to beat Pham, ending the Gophers’ season in somber fashion.

“Of course we are proud but Ö it was so tough, the coaches didn’t have words. You can’t imagine how close it really was,” Wernet said.

Young agreed.

“We knew we could play with the team, it was just a matter of catching a couple of breaks and getting over the hump,” he said.

“We felt like we deserved it (Saturday), but a lot of really good things happen other than the ‘W’ in the end.”

Wernet said once the team gets over the loss it will be able to positively reflect on the match, as well as the optimism it brings toward next season.

“We always said we made big steps that we got better. And we always said that at one point we deserved (a win against the Big Ten’s elite), but we lost again,” he said. “But in one week, I think everybody will look back and say we did a great job.”

Young said he is equally optimistic about his young team.

“We felt like we were doing things the right way (all year), even though we were losing a lot during the (start of the) year. We kept on fighting and trying harder and harder all year, and learned and got better,” he said.

Women bounced in second round too

The Minnesota women’s tennis team likely saw its season come to an end Friday when the Gophers were bounced out of the Big Ten Tournament in West Lafayette, Ind., after a 4-0 loss to the nation’s top team, Northwestern, in the second round.

After the eighth-seeded Gophers disposed of ninth-seeded Purdue 4-3 on Friday for their second victory against the Boilermakers in less than a week, coach Tyler Thomson’s squad found little holes in the armor of the 24-1 Wildcats, losing the doubles point and then quickly dropping three singles matches in straight sets to end the dual.

“They are just too tough. I told the team afterward, there is only one team in the country that is going to finish the year without a loss (as its last match), and it might have been the team we just lost to,” Thomson said.

With a 15-11 overall record, the Gophers are ranked 64th overall and Thomson said generally speaking, it takes a top-50 ranking to get an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament, meaning, in all likely hood the Gophers won’t return to the courts until next fall.

“I’m already really excited for it. We have three of our top four players returning, two freshmen coming in and would be very surprised if they don’t make an immediate impact in our starting lineup. Have another really deep team next year,” Thomson said.