Minn. faces stiff test against Michigan

Each team will also play Michigan State over the weekend.

Charlie Armitz

The Gophers women’s tennis team hasn’t had much luck lately against Michigan.

The Wolverines, ranked 20th nationally this season, have dominated the Big Ten in recent years. Minnesota, which has often been near the bottom of the conference, has lacked the talent, experience and health to compete with them.

“In past years, it’s maybe been a bit of a pipe dream [to beat Michigan],” Gophers head coach Tyler Thomson said. “They’ve just been a level better than us.”

Not this year.

Minnesota is just six places back from Michigan in the national rankings through eight weeks of the 2012 season. The No. 26 Gophers have won 11 of 12 matches — seven against ranked opponents.

They will ride an eight-match winning streak into this weekend’s road trip to Michigan State and Michigan — two teams on opposite ends of the conference spectrum.

The unranked Spartans (8-4 overall) have lost three straight matches to the Gophers. They finished last in the Big Ten in 2011 with a 1-9 record.

The Wolverines (8-5 overall) haven’t lost to Minnesota since 2003. They won the Big Ten last year with a 10-0 record.

Thomson said it’s crucial they don’t get caught looking ahead.

“We need to be very, very clear about the fact that we have a match before we play Michigan,” Thomson said. “Michigan State is a dangerous team.”

Not looking past the bad teams is an oft-used coach’s cliché, but it has merit in this case — if Minnesota can defeat Michigan State on Saturday, it will gain momentum heading into Sunday’s marquee matchup with the defending conference champions.

Michigan will also have an opportunity to boost its confidence with a home match Friday against unranked Wisconsin.

The Wolverines won their first match since early March on Wednesday, defeating No. 17 Notre Dame 5-2.

Despite the recent swings in momentum, the Gophers will need every possible edge against a Michigan team that has won 19 consecutive individual matches against Minnesota.

One of the Gophers’ key strengths this season — No. 1 singles — looks like a weakness compared to the Wolverines’ prowess at the position.

Michigan’s top singles player, Emina Bektas, is ranked 10th in the nation and has won nine of 10 matches.

To put that in perspective, one of the Gophers’ No. 1 singles players, Natallia Pintusava, lost 6-1, 6-0 to then-10th ranked Denise Dy of Washington on Feb. 5.

Minnesota’s Alexa Palen, who has split time with Pintusava at No. 1 singles this season, is the team’s only ranked player at No. 116.

Michigan has three ranked players: Bektas, Brooke Bolender (No. 64) and Mimi Nguyen (No. 124); as well as the nation’s No. 7 doubles team in Bektas and Bolender.

“We’re going to have to play extremely well to beat them,” Thomson said. “But we know that we’re capable of doing that.”

The Gophers have turned in several impressive individual performances this spring. Palen (11-0), Pintusava (8-2) and Doron Muravnik (10-1) have combined to win their last 25 matches at singles, including 19 matches against ranked teams.

But Pintusava credited the Gophers’ best start in Thomson’s 11 years as head coach to its energy and motivation as a team — not any particular player.

“This year, there are more ambitions,” Pintusava said. “There is more energy, there is more positivity, there is more emotions, more desire.”

Part of that desire is for the team to compete with the best teams in the Big Ten — something it hasn’t done in a long time.

“I think this [weekend] is an opportunity for our team and our players to perhaps establish ourselves as one of the elite teams in the Big Ten conference,” Thomson said. “In the past few years, we really haven’t been in that category, and we still aren’t. We still have a lot to prove.”

Men also play MSU and Michigan

The Gophers men’s tennis team has had considerably more success lately against Michigan than the women’s team, but it still enters Sunday’s match at Baseline Tennis Center as the underdog.

No. 44 Minnesota hosts unranked Michigan State on Friday before hosting No. 28 Michigan on Sunday.

Rain prevented the Gophers (6-3) from extending their five-match winning streak in California last weekend. Their last two wins were upsets over then-No. 40 Virginia Tech and then-No. 39 Drake.

Unlike Minnesota, Michigan is strong at the top of the singles lineup, with 10th-ranked Evan King leading the way.

The Gophers’ top singles player, Phillip Arndt, has lost four consecutive matches. He played at No. 2 singles for the first time this season against Drake and lost 6-1, 7-6 (0).

Rok Bonin replaced Arndt at No. 1 singles against Drake and won his fifth consecutive match. Bonin has also played well at second and third singles, as has Leandro Toledo.

Minnesota’s greatest strength so far has been its doubles play. The team’s top doubles tandem of Bonin and Julian Dehn has won all eight of its matches in the spring season.

The Gophers have won all three doubles matches in each of their last five contests.