Give Ohio State credit for, more often than not, bringing out the best in Illini athletes.
It happened again Sunday, when Brad Dancer's tennis team fired a lightning bolt through the third-ranked Buckeyes and made the collegiate tennis world take notice.
Everyone will be watching to see if this well-respected UI program has rediscovered itself. Has Illinois embarked on a new tennis momentum? Or was this simply another case of Illinois peaking against Ohio State and then falling back?
For the record, some of the UI's greatest football performances came against strong Ohio State teams. Even in dramatic gridiron losses — 31-24 in 1968, 49-42 in 1980, 24-21 in 2000 and the 23-16 setback in OT vs. Ohio State's national champions in 2002 — the Illini drew raves. The Illini won eight of 12 in the series beginning in 1983, and their most recent Rose Bowl trip stemmed from a 28-21 upset against the nation's No. 1 team.
Just this winter, an extraordinary 43-point splurge by Brandon Paul sparked a 79-74 upset of No. 5 Ohio State, that basketball result followed by a 12-for-14 losing slump.
But in terms of Big Ten tournament play, Sunday's 4-3 tennis upset is the most stunning by Illinois in any sport recently.
Yes, last year's baseball run was remarkable, but Dan Hartleb's team set the stage by tying for the regular season title. What happened in Evanston on Sunday came flying out of the blue ... or rather the gray skies. For all the great tennis tradition left by Craig Tiley — national champs in 2003, NCAA runners-up under Dancer in 2007 — this UI team faltered badly in April, losing 4-3 to Michigan at home, then 6-1 at Kentucky, 7-0 at Ohio State and 5-2 at Indiana.
This is an Illini program that had been clearly surpassed by superb Buckeye squads, the UI finishing runner-up in the tournament five straight years before falling to fourth a year ago ... and the Indiana match April 20 exposed a squad that was uptight and ineffective.
Some followers looked back on the home loss to Michigan as the low point. Illinois appeared to have lost its edge, and Dancer outwardly showed his unhappiness afterward. Actually, it was a double whammy. He was as upset by Michigan's tactics as with the team's performance.
"It's been tough emotionally," Dancer said. "I knew we were more competitive than we had shown. My complaint in the Michigan match was that their No. 2 player (Shaun Bernstein) remained in that position even though he was injured and had to serve underhanded. (Roy) Kalmanovich won in 50 minutes. In his condition, the Michigan player should have been moved down in the lineup or withheld."
As an explanation, coaches are not permitted to strategize their lineups. They are obliged to deploy their athletes in order of ability. If, for example, a coach could move his 1-2-3 players to 4-5-6, he'd probably only need to win the doubles to capture a match.
"Given what happened, we should still have beaten Michigan," Dancer said, "and we showed that (4-0) Saturday."
Weather or not
What changed Sunday? How could Illinois bump a third-ranked rival that held 92 straight wins against Big Ten rivals and had blanked Illinois 16 days earlier?
"The key was getting to play outside," said Dancer, referring to the North Shore campus where the weather was threatening.
"The conditions were a lot different from our previous match at Ohio State. We're a little more resilient outside where it's cold and windy and slow. Our service game is not strong, and we made up for it with physical play."
"Going in, we thought Dennis Nevolo had a 50-50 chance at No. 1, and we believed Bruno Abdelnour, at No. 3, was our best bet at maybe 75-25. When those two lost, and we had already dropped the doubles point, we didn't have any margin for error.
"But we were encouraged because the other four Illini won their first sets. When Ross Guignon finished at No. 6 in straight sets, the match was deadlocked at 3-3 and everyone turned to Kalmanovich, who was up a break in the third set. But he lost his serve against the wind and, at that point, I encouraged our fans — we had a big following — to be just as loud when he faltered because that's when the support is needed."
Kalmanovich was fighting for his life. The games were 3-3 in the final set, and he found himself down 15-40. Then, magically, the match changed. Dancer said the senior became stunningly aggressive as he rallied. He broke Blaz Rola to go up 5-3 and served for the match.
"You can't believe the excitement when he won," Dancer said. "Nevolo has had a great career but he was 0-8 against Ohio State, and yet he said nothing was ever sweeter. It was euphoric, a mob scene. I had 72 text messages within 10 minutes."
Rising to the challenge
Remarkably, in a period of 10 days, Illini men have reached back for herculean efforts to win an NCAA title (gymnastics) and two Big Ten crowns.
They were favored in none of the three. Justin Spring's gymnasts defeated host and top-ranked Oklahoma with an extraordinary performance in which, unbelievably, all 15 of the UI contestants counted. Mason Jacobs chipped in an eagle on No. 18 as the UI golfers rallied from 3 strokes down in the closing holes to edge Indiana by 3. And the bottom of the UI tennis lineup, Nos. 4-5-6, swept the stunned Buckeyes.
In these success stories, the UI drew talent from precincts near and far. The gymnasts featured superstars from New Mexico (C.J. Maestas) and New York (Paul Ruggeri) as well as three contributors from California, two from New Jersey and one from Texas. The golf team couldn't have won without Belgium sophomore Thomas Pieters and California freshman Brian Campbell. Dancer is trying to recruit more diligently in the Midwest, a change of policy since we see Kalmanovich was born in Russia, Abdelnour hails from Syria and junior Stephen Hoh calls Australia home.
Through it all, Dancer is haunted by concerns about 2013, when the NCAA tournament will be missing something locally if the Illini aren't involved.
"In losing Nevolo and Kalmanovich, we have some massive holes to fill," he said. "We had a big opportunity two years ago, and it didn't work out. Now we have an outstanding incoming class on the way, all from the Midwest. I'd guess it'll be ranked in the Top 5, and we're also talking to a transfer who could make an impact. We are hopeful the young players will see this as an opportunity."
Stealing the Big Ten title from the nation's No. 3 team won't hurt.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.