Loren Tate: Illini might spoil party

Loren Tate: Illini might spoil party

It doesn’t pay to get too far out on a limb.

Like, if I projected Illinois to reach the 2015 Rose Bowl, who’d take me seriously? Or how quickly would you call for the men in the white suits if I predicted both Illini basketball teams would do what UConn did?

Well, here’s one for you. A possibility that deserves an alert ... or is this a glass-always-full coach feeling his oats and influencing a gullible reporter?

First, let’s set the stage.

Ohio State has become a tennis powerhouse, attracting young stars from Columbus to the countries of Europe. Ty Tucker’s team has won nine consecutive Big Ten crowns, capturing 93 straight conference matches and 189 in a row at home. Think about it: an all-time NCAA record of 189. These Buckeyes captured their first NCAA indoor championship, are ranked No. 1 in the country and enter this week’s Big Ten shootout at Michigan State as a top-heavy favorite.

The Buckeyes have stockpiled so much talent that they have a half-dozen redshirts on their roster. All-American Peter Kobelt, a 6-foot-7 senior, leads the charge, and is backed by multi-medaled rookies from Germany (Ralf Steinbach, whose father captained the German water polo team), from Finland (Herkko Pollanen, who plays No. 2), and from Croatia (Marko Goles-Babic). These three won all kinds of junior titles from Budapest to Berlin.

Oh, and the No. 3 player, Chris Diaz, is a hometowner from Columbus who is studying neuroscience and wants to be a doctor.

Shhh. Keep quiet

Invincible, you say?

Whispering now — this is just between us — but ...

Illinois has a boxer’s chance. Brad Dancer has just about convinced me that the Illini are capable of rocking the collegiate tennis world. Just about.

Illinois is, after all, ranked 10th nationally and polished off Minnesota (5-1) and Wisconsin (4-1) to clinch second place in the Big Ten standings. Minus Ohio State’s glowing credentials and without any seniors, the Illini have shown dramatic improvement since failing to reach the NCAA Championships at home a year ago.

“That was the biggest disappointment since I’ve been here,” Dancer said. “We had the community and the administration behind the event. Everyone was lined up to help and pulling for us, and we didn’t get there. It was a big, big disappointment.”

It hasn’t exactly been smooth this season. Right-hander Brian Page, who played at No. 4, remains questionable even as his injured left wrist is free of its cast. His timing is off, and he was the only UI loser Sunday. New Trier’s Jared Hiltzik missed five weeks, creating a huge controversy too complicated to explain here as new Big Ten protocols on lineup submission led to the Illini forfeiture of a 4-3 win when Penn State appealed.

And Tim Kopinski missed Friday’s match with a hamstring pull.

Putting it together

This isn’t Dancer landing the world’s most renowned teenagers.

For example, the hottest Illini and newly entrenched at No. 1 is Farris Gosea. He was recruited from Wales and arrived in January 2012 on the recommendation of former Illini Bruno Abdelnour. Gosea visited when Dancer was at the nationals and committed before they actually met. Gosea’s undefeated run in the Big Ten this spring must be called unexpected.

“You hear people say players improve because of coaching,” Dancer said. “But it’s him. Farris has taken a huge step on his own.”

If Dancer’s team has an Achilles’ heel, it’s doubles. Against Michigan, all three teams had match points, and yet they lost the doubles point. Friday against Minnesota, with Kopinski sidelined, the twosome of Ross Guignon and Alex Jesse had several match points before losing the tiebreaker, 12-10.

Kopinski rejoined southpaw Guignon on Sunday, and they bordered on the sensational in confirming their status as the country’s No. 4 doubles team. Even though Gosea and Hiltzik are better singles players, they haven’t meshed as a doubles team. Kopinski and Guignon are favorites of Dancer because, unlike the Ohio State stars, “They were not recruited by the big tennis schools, and they’ve come in here and set the standard for our team.”

Said Dancer: “They are so different and yet fit together perfectly as a doubles team. Kopinski comes from Chicago, and is introverted and shy with the ability to chase balls until he falls. He has an amazing capacity for pain. Guignon is from Kansas City, and he’s flamboyant and talkative.

“They’re roommates and best buddies, and they define our culture. They are a perfect fit, the most fun doubles team I’ve had, including Ryan Rowe and Kevin Anderson (2006 NCAA doubles champions).

“Now, if we could get Gosea and Hiltzik to come together, we’d be in good shape.”

Promising future

With no seniors, Dancer is building toward a major push in 2015, when the Illini host the National Indoor in Chicago and the Big Ten Outdoor on the Khan courts. Next year could be a hullabaloo for UI fans, reminding of the Craig Tiley years.

Question today: Can they get a jump-start with a surprise in East Lansing this week? Can they chop down the No. 1 Buckeyes the way Juice Williams did in 2007?

“We have to get there first,” Dancer said.

“I like our team because we’re so much more relaxed than a year ago and just playing naturally. These guys practice hard, and we are just letting them play.

“Ohio State is an excellent team but hasn’t been winning as much at the 2-3 positions, though they’re incredible otherwise. In some cases, they’ve just been getting by.”

Since late March, Ohio State lost 4-1 at Kentucky, and it edged Northwestern, Tulsa and Purdue, all 4-3. In hosting Illinois on March 28, Ohio State won 5-2 with Gosea and Kopinski registering wins against Kobelt and Diaz, but the Illini faltered in a close doubles battle and lost two three-set singles matches.

“We had tremendous momentum at a certain point,” Dancer said, “but we didn’t capitalize. Credit Ohio State for staying tough when we had them on the ropes.

“I think they’re built for indoor and faster court surfaces. As we go outside with slower conditions, I feel comfortable with our team going against them ... if we can get in that position.”

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.

Top seeds

A look at the top seeds for this week’s Big Ten men’s tennis tournament:
No. 1 Ohio State; No. 2 Illinois; No. 3 Penn State; No. 4 Purdue

Sections (3):Illini Sports, Sports, Tennis