The Gophers women’s tennis team got a taste of the future this past weekend at the NCAA Midwest Regional Tennis Tournament.
Playing Mississippi, the No. 13 team in the country, in the semifinals of the tournament, the Gophers experienced a brand of tennis that wasn’t exactly Minnesota Nice. The Mississippi Rebels certainly lived up to their nickname.
There were several disputed calls and even a shouting match between Gophers coach Martin Novak and one of the Rebels’ assistants.
“That Southeastern Conference mentality is much more in your face,” Novak said. “But it was a great experience. Some of our players said, ‘We need to sharpen our teeth a little bit.'”
This was especially important because the Gophers, coming off their best Big Ten finish ever, expect to do just as well if not better next season. If Minnesota is to become an elite team in the near future — something that may have seemed impossible before the team’s metamorphosis this season — it will need to add a swagger to its collective step.
The Gophers have every reason to think they’ll be near the top of the Big Ten next year. No. 1 singles player Dana Peterson is the only one graduating from the team. And Tiffany Gates, who was injured this season but was 20-3 at No. 1 singles two years ago, should return to reclaim the top spot in the lineup. Add Hungarian recruit Nora Souska and a year of experience for a young team, and Minnesota’s future looks bright.
This year’s team showed more than just a glimpse of things to come. Alice Rangsithienchai, Tarah Elkins and Jana Hrdinova — three freshmen who started for the Gophers — combined for a 65-32 record, including a 44-22 record in dual matches. Sophomore Jennifer Hayes was 15-6 in dual matches, primarily at No. 3 singles.
As a team, Minnesota finished 16-8, its most wins since the 1988-89 season — not too bad for a team that went 9-14 last season and played without its top returning player for the entire spring season.
Novak admits that he didn’t predict the Gophers would finish as high as they did. Many of the players on the team shared the same feelings, perhaps remembering crushing injuries and poor team chemistry from years past.
“We hoped for a top-four finish, but we didn’t know how realistic that was,” said Peterson, who went 15-9 at No. 1 singles. “Initially, it was surprising because of how much we had struggled.”
Peterson credits the team’s turnaround to vastly improved team unity and the overachieving freshmen.
Rangsithienchai, one of the freshmen Peterson spoke of, said she is a completely different player than she was a year ago — something she considers a good thing. She said she played the best tennis of her life this season and sees no reason the Gophers can’t be in the top 20 team next year. Minnesota was ranked as high as 31 this year.
Rangsithienchai said she is even looking forward to developing the tough edge that players from top programs like Mississippi use to intimidate opponents.
“It got me really mad when they were doing their thing,” she said. “But we found out we can hit with them. If we get a high ranking next year, people will start looking at us like we looked at Mississippi.”
Novak was more cautious about the team’s chances next season, but he is still very optimistic. He said that unlike this season, when Wisconsin went 10-0 while dominating the conference, there will not be an undefeated Big Ten team next year. Teams like Minnesota, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Michigan and Indiana will all be legitimate contenders, he said.
“A lot of things had to go right for us to get to this point,” Novak said. “But now that it’s happened, I think we’re here to stay.”