When Ben Gabler, a junior on the Gophers men’s tennis team, finishes his playing career, he may want to consider becoming an ESPN analyst or a professional gambler.
When asked about Minnesota’s No. 6 seed in the six-team NCAA Regional Tournament two days before it began, the Chambersburg, Pa., native mused: “What do seedings really mean? I don’t put much stock in them.”
Those comments may have seemed like nothing but tough talk coming from a player still upset over the Gophers loss two weeks ago in the Big Ten tournament.
But Gabler’s words are eerily true now.
Minnesota, the lowest seed in this weekend’s regional tournament at South Bend, Ind., stunned three consecutive opponents to win the regionals and earn an automatic berth in next weekend’s NCAA national tournament in Athens, Ga. It’s the first time the Gophers have qualified for nationals since 1988-89.
Minnesota knocked off tournament host and No. 3 seed Notre Dame and No. 2 seed Michigan to earn a spot in Sunday’s championship match. Every match in the tournament was won by the team with the lower seed. The Gophers’ opponent in the championship, fifth-seeded Northwestern, also beat a pair of higher seeds en route to the title game.
The Gophers had lost to all three of their tournament opponents during the regular season. But it wasn’t just that the Gophers upset three higher-ranked teams — it was the manner in which they did it.
“It was unbelievable,” said Gophers coach David Geatz. “It was like winning three double-overtime games in a row.”
Geatz attributed the tournament win to good health, determination and more than a little luck.
On Friday, Minnesota was tied 3-3 with the Irish. Freshman No. 6 player Martin Kristofferson’s match had yet to be decided. The Norway native had lost his first set but won his second to send the match to a third and final set. The deciding set went to a tiebreaker, which Kristofferson eventually won 7-4.
In the Gophers’ 4-2 win over Michigan on Saturday, which Geatz called “the most satisfying” of the weekend, freshman Adam Selkirk clinched the win with a three-set, come-from-behind victory.
Sunday’s championship match, however, may have been the most dramatic of all. After winning the doubles point, the Gophers dropped three singles matches in straight sets to go down 3-1 in the overall match.
Erik Donley and Selkirk won their matches in three sets, with Donley’s concluding just moments before Lars Hjarrand. No. 1 singles player Hjarrand, who won a crucial match Saturday, had lost his first set and was down 5-4, 40-15 in the second set. But Hjarrand fought off two match points, won the set and clinched the championship for the Gophers by winning the third set 6-4.
Minnesota, which entered the regional tournament with an 11-11 record, had won four consecutive Big Ten titles before losing to Illinois in the semifinals this year. The Gophers had lost in the regionals in all of those years, including 4-3 setbacks to Notre Dame in each of the last three seasons.
“It’s absolutely ironic,” Geatz said. “I have a ring from 1993 that says we went 28-3 — but we didn’t go to nationals that year. This takes a whole lot of the sting away from what we consider to be a horrendous year.”
Minnesota’s first-round opponent in the national tournament has not yet been named. Geatz said the Gophers will play Saturday and likely face one of the top four teams in the country.