NCAA tennis: Big Ten making up ground (strokes)

NCAA tennis: Big Ten making up ground (strokes)

URBANA — A Big Ten school is hosting a tennis national championship for the first time.

Even if the women have not exactly cemented a spot on the national scene.

But Jim Delany’s league had three teams at the Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex, albeit a little later than either Northwestern, Michigan and Nebraska anticipated, on Friday.

While the Wildcats’ season ended with a 4-3 loss to Miami in the round of 16, Michigan was to play UCLA in a match that was scheduled for 7 p.m. but had not started as of 11 p.m. Nebraska’s match against North Carolina had yet to be completed as of 11 p.m.

Nonetheless, having three schools make it this far bodes well for the conference.

“It’s a great thing for our league and a great thing for us nationally,” Northwestern coach Claire Pollard said. “I think it will help a lot in recruiting, so that we can maybe outrecruit some of those other schools. Some of the other schools can really use participation in the NCAAs against us, and now they can no longer use that. It speaks volumes for the league about how far it’s come.”

Pollard said she has a clear selling point for players on her roster, which features one in-state player, Hinsdale Central product Nida Hamilton, four out-of-state players and three foreign players.

“Our academics are what we offer,” Pollard said. “Our degree holds up worldwide. If you want to be a great player, you can develop your game. Eastern European players don’t develop their game outside. They develop their game inside. I don’t think the cold weather isn’t a reason why the Big Ten can’t win the NCAAs. I think it just makes it a little bit harder.”

In the men’s tournament, Ohio State will square off against Southern California at 4 p.m. today in a quarterfinal match. The Buckeyes are the standard-bearer for men’s tennis in the Big Ten, yet only Illinois (2003) and Michigan (1957) have won a national title.

The ACC had the most schools represented Friday with five while the SEC and Pac-12 each had four. Parity isn’t exactly known in women’s tennis. Since the NCAA Championships started in 1982, only eight schools have won the tournament, with Stanford capturing the most championships with 16. Florida, which has won it the last two seasons, is next with six. Georgia, Texas and USC each have two titles.

So the elite-level players have generally gone to a smaller window of schools.

Now, the window appears to be widening.

“I think it’s great,” said Jeff Wallace, Georgia’s coach who owns the most wins in NCAA history with 607. “The more great schools we have, it’s great for the sport, obviously. They’ve got great programs in the Big Ten and a lot of good coaches. I think that’s only going to continue.”

For the past decade, Northwestern has carried the Big Ten banner for women’s tennis. Friday’s appearance in the round of 16 marked the 10th straight year for Pollard’s squad while Michigan was back at this stage in the tournament for the fourth straight time. Nebraska made its first appearance.

“To try to break into that elite class, boy, it’s tough,” said D.J. Gurule, the Gonzaga women’s tennis coach who is the chair of the Division I men’s and women’s tennis committee. “I think hosting here not only gives the teams, but the community, a real realization of what goes into top-class programs. The Big Ten is very tough. It’s probably right there in the top five conferences tenniswise, both men’s and women’s.”

Pollard said the perception of the Big Ten in the women’s game is slowly starting to improve.

“I think we have a lot of respect in terms of what we bring to the table in terms of the student-athlete, but I don’t think we were very well-respected on the national level,” she said. “I think that has changed tremendously. We’ve done a nice job nationally, Michigan has done a nice job nationally and Nebraska’s had a phenomenal year. Having three teams here is very encouraging.”

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