Gophers show growth in Merzbacher’s second year

Minnesota won 17 matches this year, its highest total in more than 10 years.

Women's Tennis coach Chuck Merzbacher directs training routines during practice Wednesday, April 3, 2013, at the Baseline Tennis Center.

Daily File Photo; Jaak Jensen

Women’s Tennis coach Chuck Merzbacher directs training routines during practice Wednesday, April 3, 2013, at the Baseline Tennis Center.

Jace Frederick

The Gophers were in a bit of a hole Thursday.

Without top singles player Tereza Brichacova, Minnesota trailed rival Wisconsin 3-2 in the first round of the Big Ten tournament.

Still, the Gophers didn’t panic, didn’t fold and didn’t falter.

Minnesota took the final two singles matches, the last a straight-set victory by junior Julia Courter at No. 3 singles, to win the match 4-3.

It was another example of the relentless, never-give-up mentality head coach Chuck Merzbacher has instilled in his team.

It’s a culture that took a few years to establish and was the focus of this season, Merzbacher said.

“You want that mental toughness, because then when you bring in people, they’re part of it from the beginning,” he said. “It starts in practice. It starts in the conditioning. It starts in everything you do.”

That toughness manifested into a marked improvement in results during Merzbacher’s second year at the helm.

The Gophers’ season ended with a loss in the quarterfinals to Ohio State, but not before they amassed 17 wins and a 6-5 Big Ten record — their best results in more than a decade.

“We had a ton of improvement,” Merzbacher said. “We’re pleased with the progress.”

Merzbacher attributed his team’s success to its newfound toughness across the board. That toughness spewed as the Gophers notched seven road victories this season, a year after going winless in eight road contests.

“This year we really focused in when we got on the road, and we focused on winning,” Courter said. “It just went our way.”

Minnesota struggled with depth a year ago, due in part to a plethora of injuries. This season, that was far from the case.

Most of the Gophers’ success came at the bottom of the order. Minnesota went a combined 54-21 at the No. 4 singles, No. 5 singles and No. 6 singles spots this season. The Gophers also had 10 players record singles victories.

That depth will only improve heading into next season, as senior Natallia Pintusava is the lone player the Gophers lose from the regular rotation.

“I know all of the pieces are in place,” Merzbacher said. “We’re building the depth that we need, and we’re putting people in a position to where they can improve their game to help us at a higher spot each year. That’s how we’re going to have to do it.”

Merzbacher cited Brichacova as one of the players who’s worked her way up the ladder. Brichacova played at the No. 4 singles spot early in her college career, but she has since cemented herself as the No. 1 player on the squad.

Merzbacher said he’s looking for other players to make similar jumps this offseason.

Minnesota sophomores Paula Rincon Otero and Kendall Heitzner, freshman Maja Vujic and two talented incoming freshmen will meld well with the core of upperclassmen next year, Merzbacher said.

That should create plenty of competition across the board.

“There’s going to be some really good players that may not be in the lineup,” Merzbacher said. “I think every single spot in this lineup is going to be up for grabs.”

Merzbacher anticipates that competition will continue to strengthen a program that seems to be on the rise. He said that over time, he hopes the program can consistently finish in the top half of the Big Ten and compete for conference crowns — something it inched closer toward achieving this season.

“We’re really excited for next year,” Courter said. “We’re just going to build off this year and have an even more successful year next year.”

Gophers fall, Toledo waits

Minnesota’s men’s tennis season came to a sudden halt when Indiana upset the Gophers 4-3 on Thursday in the first round of the Big Ten tournament.

That loss capped a season in which the Gophers were good at home but couldn’t get much done on the road.

Still, it seems likely that junior Leandro Toledo’s season will continue.

Toledo entered last week ranked 42nd in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association rankings and defeated Indiana’s Sam Monette at No. 1 singles Thursday.

Toledo is 18-6 this season and appears to be in good shape to qualify for the NCAA singles tournament. The field for the tournament will be announced Wednesday.