Geatz: No. 7 unlucky for opponents

by Aaron Kirscht

Ross Loel, who helped the men’s tennis team win four straight Big Ten championships from 1992-95, stopped by to check in on his former team last week.
When he was around, Loel asked to see the bracket for the upcoming Big Ten tournament, the quarterfinals of which begin today.
But coach David Geatz wouldn’t let him see it.
“I was embarrassed to show it to him,” Geatz said. “I hid it from him, so he wouldn’t have to see that Minnesota was seeded seventh.”
Such is the state of Minnesota’s men’s tennis program, where anything below No. 1 is a letdown.
But Geatz is quick to point out that the Gophers’ (8-12 overall, 4-6 in the Big Ten) quest for a fifth conference title in six seasons is still within reach. To get there, however, his team would have to pull off a series of upsets, all of which are unprecedented.
“I think we’re going to be the first No. 7 seed in the history of the tournament to beat a No. 2 seed (Purdue),” Geatz said. “I’d bet on it.
“You could put that in the Purdue paper and they’d probably get pissed, but I think we’re going to beat ’em.”
These are big words for a coach whose team struggled to keep its head above water for most of the season before losing three of the last four matches. One of those losses was to Purdue, 4-3, last weekend in West Lafayette, Ind.
To get another shot at Purdue, the Gophers will first have to beat 10th-seeded Ohio State, a team that beat them 6-1 back in February. But as far as Geatz is concerned, the idea of a first-round loss is unthinkable.
“We haven’t been a good team for most of the season, but we’re going to beat Ohio State,” Geatz said. “We’ve got to beat Ohio State.”
Since Geatz took over the helm in 1989, his Gophers teams have never finished the season with a losing record and dropped out of the top three only once, in 1990. Five Big Ten titles have been gathered along the way.
“We used to go to the tournament and laugh at the No. 7 seed,” Geatz said. “We’d show up, see who we were going to play and go out there and kick their butts in about two hours. It wouldn’t even concern us.”
The Gophers’ reputation will likely prevent them from becoming the butt of jokes, but chances are good that more than a few observers are scratching their heads.
Atop the list of oddities is the sub-par performance of senior Lars Hjarrand, a three-time All-Big Ten selection playing at No. 1 singles, who has failed to work out the kinks of the two quarters of collegiate competition he missed earlier this season.
Because he was only one class short of graduation, Hjarrand spent the fall and winter playing in Mexico in preparation for the stretch run of the Big Ten season.
Thus far, the time off appears to have hurt. Hjarrand has won only twice in six matches (one of those losses came to Purdue’s Jamie Gordon, 6-3, 7-6). Still, if the Gophers are indeed set on turning the season around, it starts at the top with Hjarrand.
“I’ve seen him play so well,” Geatz said. “It’s a mystery to me. I don’t know what the deal is.”
Hjarrand has been looking for answers as well.
“I’m not playing that bad,” he said. “I’m struggling a little bit with my serve, but the guys I’m playing are playing well. I can’t play my best every time, you know?”
The team spent the week practicing lightly — “We don’t want to leave our best game on the practice court,” Geatz said — in preparation for its first Big Ten tournament as a qualified underdog.
“We’ve had a year like no other,” he said. “But my feeling is maybe we can put it together for one more weekend.”
“Dark horse” women No. 4
While the men’s team has become accustomed to winning Big Ten titles year in and year out, the women’s team is on the brink of something new.
Before finishing in a tie for third place last season, the Gophers women’s tennis team hadn’t done better than sixth place since 1990. Now, as it enters the Big Ten tournament as a No. 4 seed, Minnesota (11-5, 6-4) is surging with confidence.
“We’re feeling very good about ourselves,” coach Martin Novak said. “I would put us as the dark horse of the tournament. I think we can be a very dangerous team for pretty much everyone.”
The Gophers play Northwestern, a team they beat 5-2 last weekend, in the quarterfinals today in West Lafayette, Ind.
“I feel very good about us duplicating what we did last weekend (against the Wildcats),” Novak said, “but we’re not going to take them for granted by any means.
“We’ll go in there thinking, ‘We’ve done it before, let’s do it again.’ I don’t want to sound like it’s a sure bet, but I’m very confident that we’ll get into the semifinals.”
If the Gophers are able to put up a similar performance against Northwestern, they will face Michigan in the semifinals. The Wolverines, who finished the Big Ten season undefeated, drummed Minnesota, 7-0, on April 12 and failed to lose a set.
But Novak looks forward to a rematch — this time on a neutral court, with fresher legs.
“We’ve got a great mindset right now,” he said. “All the pressure will be on (Michigan). They have proven to everyone they can win in a round robin, but now they’ll have to duplicate it.”
The Gophers’ run has been fueled by the top of their singles order for most of the season. No. 1 Nora Sauska, the odds-on favorite for Big Ten Newcomer of the Year, finished the regular season with a record of 23-2. Last season’s top freshman, Alice Rangsithienchai, was 18-7.
But doubles has been a consistent problem for Minnesota, having won little more than half of its doubles matches this season.
“It’s all about consistency, maturity and patience,” Novak said. “I’m not unhappy with our team’s progress. With a little luck we could have won at least a few more doubles points, but we just have to get better so that we don’t have to rely on luck.”
Nevertheless, Novak said he’d take the Gophers to win it all — if he were a gambling man.
“I’ll be putting the money on us,” he said, laughing. “Well, that’s illegal. I’m not putting any money down.”