U men’s tennis tries to reach elite group

Nick Doty

When a team wins four consecutive Big Ten championships, the expectations for the next season are obviously going to be high.
The Gophers men’s tennis team exceeded expectations for the 1995-96 season by earning a berth to the NCAA Championships in Athens, Ga.
But the team’s journey to Georgia wasn’t exactly a smooth plane ride a way. It was more like an eerie Camaro drive across 10,000 frozen Minnesota lakes in January.
Luckily, Coach David Geatz’s team didn’t fall through the ice. “We stumbled (throughout the season); didn’t win the Big Ten. But we finished the season strong … that’s all that matters.”
At one point during the season, the Gophers were a lowly 3-9. But they managed to regroup and win 11 out of their next 13 matches leading up to the NCAA Championships.
After receiving the sixth seed in the six-team NCAA Region IV tournament, the Gophers shifted to overdrive. Led by Lars Hjarrand and Ben Gabler, the team put together a string of three consecutive upsets, including a shocker over host Notre Dame (4-3). The Gophers also defeated Big Ten champion Michigan (4-2), and Northwestern (4-3) to gain a bid to nationals. But they were quickly disposed by Ole Miss (4-0) at nationals to finish the season 14-12 (9-3 in the Big Ten).
Much like last year, Geatz expects the team to be led by Hjarrand and Gabler.
“They’re both seniors with experience, and they’ll be very good,” Geatz said.
Hjarrand, an Oslo, Norway native, is coming off a year in which he was 33rd in the nation in the final Rolex/ITA singles player rankings. He was Geatz’s No. 1 player and compiled a 25-14 overall record in match play. Hjarrand also was a member of the Gophers’ No. 1 duo with Erik Donley that was 20-8 overall in doubles play.
A versatile senior captain last year, Donley is the only starter not returning to Geatz’ squad. Donley saw time as the No. 2, 3, and 4 starter for the Gophers.
Gabler, a senior from Chambersburg, Pa., is gunning for his 100th career singles victory as he enters the season with a 79-32 career mark. He also is a solid doubles player. Gabler teamed with sophomores Adam Selkirk and John Cheregi during the 1995-96 season.
Tom Chicoine and Martin Kristofferson, who both started for Geatz last year as freshmen, return as powerful sophomores. Chicoine, Kristofferson and Selkirk will likely vie for the No. 3 slot this season.
A talented sophomore class is followed by what Geatz calls a “fantastic” group of freshmen.
Matt Peplinski, a two-time Minnesota Class AA men’s tennis champion from Bloomington, is joined by fellow Bloomington native Aaron DeVorak and Canadian Martin Michelowski as one of the top recruiting classes in the nation.
Most Gophers players are competing in various amateur tournaments this summer to practice for the upcoming season, which begins with an international competition Sept. 13 in Tokyo. The team will spend 10 days in Japan.
Although the Gophers expect tough competition overseas, they will have their hands full again this season within the conference. Geatz said Michigan and Illinois will be tough and so will Northwestern, who has everybody back from last year’s successful squad. But Geatz sees the Gophers being just as tough, as he eyes his sixth conference crown in nine years as head coach.
“We will more than contend, we’ll be right there at the end.” But he said it won’t be an easy ride.
It may be wise to get tire spikes for that Camaro.