Gophers clinch share of Big Ten regular-season title

Freshman Matic Spec returns a shot at Baseline Tennis Center on Sunday afternoon.

James Healy

Freshman Matic Spec returns a shot at Baseline Tennis Center on Sunday afternoon.

Danny Chen

The Gophers haven’t won the Big Ten regular season title since 1995.
 
But with two upset victories against third-ranked Illinois and No. 27 Northwestern this weekend, No. 33 Minnesota clinched a share of the conference title.
 
The Gophers finished tied with Illinois and Ohio State after each team finished with a 10-1 conference record.
 
“I’m really proud of the team,” head coach Geoff Young said. “They’ve done great, and they really have stayed with it. They have done so many things that great teams do.”
 
Minnesota had one of its toughest matches of the season against Illinois on Friday
 
The Gophers started by convincingly taking the doubles point, but had to fend off Illinois’ comeback attempt in the singles competition.
 
Minnesota dropped four of six first-set matches, digging itself into a hole.
 
Senior Jack Hamburg finished his match in two sets, 6-4, 6-4, giving the Gophers a 2-0 team lead.
 
But Illinois won its next three matches at Nos. 4, 1 and 3 singles.
 
As Minnesota’s regular-season title hopes seemed to diminish, freshman Matic Spec  came back and won his match.
 
“I was down three match points before I came back and won my match,” Spec said. “I got really lucky. [Young] came to my court when I was down. He told me to lift up my spirits and believe that I could win.”
 
Tied at three points apiece, the Gophers counted on Froment in the No. 6 singles to take home a team victory.
 
Froment ultimately triumphed in his match — 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (7-2) — despite dropping the first set.
 
“We knew as a team that we could beat Illinois,” Froment said. “And that was the meet that everything clicked for us.” 
 
But before the Gophers clinched their share of the title, they needed to beat Northwestern, too.
 
After winning the doubles point, No. 1 singles player Leandro Toledo started out the singles competition with a loss. 
 
The Gophers took a two-point lead before seeing that wiped out, putting the pressure on the shoulders of freshman Felix Corwin at No. 6 singles.
 
Corwin dropped his first set 6-4 and was down 3-0 in the second set before he willed his way back to win 7-5. 
 
Like Froment against Illinois, Corwin forced a tiebreaker with his opponent and ultimately won 7-6 (7-5).
 
“You would think that you can’t beat the atmosphere that we had against Illinois,” Corwin said. “But this might have matched it. This has been an unbelievable experience.”
 
Gophers women split wins
 
The Gophers traded victories with Purdue and Indiana over the weekend, defeating the Boilermakers at home before falling to the Hoosiers on the road.
 
Against No. 34 Purdue, Minnesota won 4-3, requiring the final match at No. 6 singles to pull off the victory.
 
“We put in an amazing effort against Purdue,” head coach Chuck Merzbacher said. “We just wanted one more in the Big Ten. And this win helped us secure a winning record in [our conference]. That was big for us.”
 
Minnesota finished 6-5 in the Big Ten, matching its highest conference win total since 2003.
 
On the road against Indiana, the team felt the fatigue of the trip and lost 6-1.
 
“I think we were a little road weary and looked a little tired,” Merzbacher said.
 
Despite the team splitting wins this weekend, freshman Caroline Ryba said she thought her team performed well.
 
“We had really good energy and fought really hard in both matches,” Ryba said. “Even though we lost at Indiana, we gave it our all, and that’s all that 
matters.”