URBANA – Little wonder Craig Tiley has fond memories of the 1996 Rolex Regionals.
"It was a forerunner for what happened the rest of the year," the University of Illinois men's tennis coach said Thursday. "It was the initial indication that we have now arrived on the national scene and are ready to compete at that level and win at that level."
A strong showing in the Rolex Regionals last fall led to all sorts of goods things for the Illini.
Like an invitation to the Rolex Team National Indoor Championships, where the Illini stunned No. 3 Mississippi State and knocked off No. 5 Duke en route to fifth place.
Like a rise in the national rankings that continued until season's end, with Illinois standing No. 20.
Like momentum that kept building all the way to the program's first Big Ten Conference team title since 1946.
Like a No. 17 preseason ranking this fall.
This weekend, the Illini will revisit where it all started. And they won't even need to leave home. Starting today, Illinois will play host to the Midwest's best collegiate singles and doubles players in the Rolex Region IV Indoor Championships.
The single-elimination tournament winds up on Monday at the Atkins Tennis Center with semifinals in singles and doubles at 8:30 a.m. The title matches will follow at about noon.
The Illini have three singles players seeded in the top 13: No. 2 Cary Franklin, No. 5 Gavin Sontag and No. 13 Oliver Freelove. Two of Illinois' doubles teams also are seeded: No. 3 Franklin-Freelove and No. 10 Sontag-Brady Blain.
A year ago, Blain teamed with then-senior Jerry Turek in this tournament to qualify for the Rolex nationals, where they reached the quarterfinals.
Tiley is confident a demanding fall schedule has toughened his team for what awaits it this weekend. But he also said in the regionals, there's no margin for error.
"I'm expecting them to have a good tournament, but again, if you have have one bad match, you're out," the Illini coach said.