Donley’s NCAA chance comes when least expected

Michael Rand

Some athletes spend their entire careers on second-rate teams, trying desperately but without avail to experience team success. Others are luckier and have the good fortune of being talented and on a nationally respected team.
And then there is a third type of athlete: The competitor who is on a quality team that experiences a good amount of success, but can’t quite reach the final plateau.
Professional baseball’s version of this rare breed, up until last year, was Don Mattingly. The now-retired first baseman had an illustrious career but never made it to the postseason until his New York Yankees slipped into the playoffs last season as a wild card team.
Perhaps Gophers men’s tennis player Erik Donley falls into this category as well. Donley, the only senior starter on the team, helped Minnesota win the last three of its four consecutive Big Ten titles before this season.
Although that accomplishment is commendable in itself, the Gophers’ domination was limited to the conference. In each of Donley’s first three years, Minnesota lost in the NCAA regionals. All three season-ending losses were 4-3 heartbreakers against Notre Dame.
For the Duluth East graduate, this season was the last chance to make the national tournament — what he calls “the show.” The Gophers, who lost a total of 13 matches in Donley’s first three years, got off to a 2-8 start, rebounded to a 10-10 record by the time the Big Ten tournament rolled around, but lost in the semifinals to Illinois.
“It was a huge letdown to lose Big Tens,” Donley said.
It seemed as if Donley would not only be left out of the show, but wouldn’t even be a stagehand. After being favored at regionals in years past, the Gophers almost didn’t qualify for the Region IV Tournament this season. Minnesota was the No. 6 seed in a six-team tournament.
But like Mattingly — who had come excruciatingly close to the playoffs while playing next to future Hall of Famers Dave Winfield and Rickey Henderson — Donley got his shot at the big time when he least expected it.
The Gophers scratched, clawed and fought off match points on three consecutive days to win the regional tournament, earning them an automatic berth in the nationals. Minnesota’s first-round win against Notre Dame — a school that told Donley it didn’t want him out of high school — made the weekend of improbable victories even sweeter, Donley said.
Minnesota (14-11) will play Mississippi (20-2) on Saturday in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Athens, Ga.
“Until we get to Georgia, it’s not really going to sink in,” Donley said. “I can’t believe we’re going to the championships.”
The Gophers are still spinning after a whirlwind weekend in South Bend, Ind., at the regional tournament. Donley said when members of the team posed for the victory picture, they were so mentally and physically drained that they all had to sit down.
Donley himself lay in bed all Monday, resting his sore right shoulder.
But once the Gophers step onto the court against the Bulldogs, Donley and the rest of his mates will bury thoughts about nagging injuries in the back of their minds.
“It’s going to be great going down there and seeing all the hoopla,” Donley said. “There’s not a better way to end your career.”