Coach Dancer's Illini will start the 2014 spring season ranked 22nd in the country.
Jan. 10, 2014
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - The #22 Fighting Illini men's tennis team is set to kickoff their 2014 season Friday, Jan. 17, at their annual Illini Open in Ft. Meyers, Fla. Head coach Brad Dancer returns for his ninth season at the helm of the program. His 2013 squad went 17-11 overall, 8-3 in the Big Ten, reached the Big Ten Tournament semifinals and made its 18th straight NCAA Tournament, where they fell to No. 16 Vanderbilt in the second round.
"We have been fortunate to always shoot for a Big Ten championship," Dancer said. "We've been competitive each year and with this year's team, they should be striving for a Big Ten title. We recognize there will be some great teams to play along the way, but if we play tough, this team can do it."
The 2014 Illini will be without the services of Bruno Abdelnour and Stephen Hoh, who both graduated last spring. Abdelnour finished his career with 60 singles victories to his name while Hoh accomplished 82 career wins, including a 19-13 senior year.
"Bruno and Stephen will always have their Big Ten championship from 2012," continued Dancer. "They were instrumental to that year's success and an integral part of the 'band of seven'. It was a shame that Bruno had so many difficult injuries in his senior year as he didn't get the closure to his Illini career that he so deserves."
However, the Orange and Blue have simply reloaded for what is to be an exciting 2014 dual season ahead. Illinois returned seven players from last year's squad and added Vanderbilt transfer Blake Bazarnik to the mix. The team is comprised of four juniors: Tim Kopinski, Ross Guignon, Farris Gosea and Blake Bazarnik and four sophomores: Jared Hiltzik, Alex Jesse, Brian Page and Julian Childers.
"We had some strong efforts from the fall. Starting with Tim's run at Olympia Fields - it was exceptional for Tim to have success on clay - a surface that has not been friendly to him in the past. Jared's runs at the All-American Championships and National Indoor Championships were the highlight of the fall and should give him added confidence heading into the dual season. We had a number of guys that locked in and were right on the cusp of some break out performances such as Brian Page and Farris Gosea."
Jared Hiltzik is the most notable returnee in singles. In 2013, Hiltzik took home the Big Ten Freshman of the Year award, first-team All-Big Ten, three Big Ten Tennis Athlete of the Week awards, and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Singles Championships.
Hiltzik continued to find success this fall. After reaching the quarterfinals earlier in the season at the ITA All-American Championships, the Wilmette native became the fifth Illini ever to reach the ITA National Indoor Championship final, as he knocked off two top-10 players in the process. Hiltzik begins his 2014 journey ranked No. 4 in the country, which marks a career high for the sophomore.
"Jared is making steady progress with his game. It all comes back to him and the discipline with how he leads his life. He is a perfect example of having the game on his mind and staying focused on his goals. His improvements in his transition game can begin to set him aside from other players. He knows there are so many good players in the Big Ten so he will have his hands full every match."
When previewing these next two Illini, it's only right to talk about them together, in Tim Kopinski and Ross Guignon. In 2013, this doubles team went 10-4 in dual matches, which included six victories over top-50 ranked doubles teams. The duo also qualified for the NCAA Doubles Championships where they took the eventual champions to three sets. This past fall, Kopinski/Guignon won the consolation bracket at All-American's and reached the semifinals at the National Indoor Championships. Like Hiltzik, Kopinski/Guignon will begin 2014 with a career high No. 4 ranking in doubles.
"I've said this before, but in terms of chemistry and positioning, Kopinski and Guignon play the best doubles of any team I've coached at Illinois. They both just have to continue to improve their fundamental skills, especially serving. As they sharpen their individual skills they have the capacity to become a great doubles team."
Individually, Kopinski posted a 13-11 singles dual match record in 2013, delivered the clincher vs. #7 Kentucky, won a Big Ten Tennis Athlete of the Week award and was a second-team All-Big Ten selection. Kopinski will start his spring season ranked #46 in the country. Meanwhile, Guignon tallied an 11-10 dual match record which included a key singles win vs. #5 Duke and produced a 5-4 mark in Big Ten play.
"Tim is beginning to establish a reputation that he cannot be out-toughed. His parents instilled in him an impeccable work ethic and he will get in the ring with anybody. He has grown so much since his freshman year in knowing and understanding the nuances of tennis flow. He competes with such an intensity, that when he manages that vigor he becomes an elite player."
"Ross continues to set the tone for our team with his professionalism and attention to detail. Last year was very unfortunate that he was physically unable to compete at his highest level. His foot is always on the gas pedal, so the coaching staff has to help him manage how he is coming in and out of the turns - when he finds that balance he is like a Porsche."
Farris Gosea achieved an impressive 16-5 dual match record last year, primarily playing in the No. 6 spot where he went undefeated at 8-0. Furthermore, Gosea went 8-2 in Big Ten play and produced 11 singles wins this past fall, which tied Hiltzik for the most on the team. Next, Bazarnik joins the Illini after posting a 20-13 overall record in his freshman season at Vanderbilt, where he won a SEC Freshman of the Week award and was named ITA Ohio Valley Region Rookie of the Year. Together, Gosea/Bazarnik are ranked 27th in doubles.
"Farris got so much discipline this fall, I expect our fans to thoroughly enjoy watching him compete. He replaced his frenetic mind with a toughness and he now believes he can play and beat anyone in college tennis. The next step for him is gaining the physical strength to increase his versatility on court."
"Blake made steady progress through the fall. We recruited Blake heavily coming out of high school and now it is so many years later I can't wait to watch Blake compete for the Illini. His speed and court sense make him a tough out and when he gets his serve and offensive game going he becomes a complete player. Blake will have a big impact on our team's success this spring."
Alex Jesse will look to carry momentum into the 2014 dual season after being voted the most improved player and player to watch for this upcoming season. Earning a spot late in the 2013 spring season, Jesse went 4-1 in Big Ten play and was the team's lone point in the NCAA Tournament loss to Vanderbilt, where he won 11 consecutive games to take a straight set victory. Jesse teamed with Hiltzik in doubles and the pair went undefeated at 7-0 in conference action. Jesse/Hiltzik will begin 2014 ranked 31st in doubles.
"AJ steps up and plays some impressive tennis in practice and in some highlighted matches through-out the season. For AJ it's all about consistency. He's so competitive it sometimes hurts him when he gets behind in matches. He is one of our guys that plays his best tennis in the big moments. He has to be physical early in matches to get himself in those positions where his transition play can take over at the end of matches. "
Brian Page went 4-4 in the No. 6 singles position last year and 2-1 in Big Ten play. This fall he went 6-7 in tournament action. Last but not least Julian Childers posted a 3-5 record in the fall and will look to see his first dual match action this spring.
"Page is a guy that is always searching for the key to greatness - he has an insatiable appetite for improving - that's been a small curse for him in that he sometimes doesn't appreciate that he is playing great tennis right now. He changed his fitness program this fall and we started to see significant progress down the stretch. The team is expecting big things from Page this spring."
"Julian struggled more than anyone on our team this fall - whether that was expectations from some good wins this summer or sophomore slump, it is difficult to say, but we are confident Julian can perform better than what we saw. He possesses an incredible ability to absorb skills and when he is locked in and focused, his speed and court sense become impressive."
The 2014 dual season officially gets going Jan. 24 for the ITA Kickoff Weekend in Oxford, Miss., where the Illini will try to qualify for the National Indoor Championships. Illinois will then travel to North Carolina for dual matches with #7 Duke and #43 UNC. Next, the Fighting Illini finally return to Urbana for its home-opening week, where they'll play three matches (Notre Dame, Texas A&M, Texas) in five days in front of the Atkins crowd.
Big Ten play gets underway March 2 at Northwestern. Other notable spring matchups include a televised game vs. #13 Pepperdine on March 14, at #5 Ohio State on March 30 and at #9 Kentucky on April 2. The Big Ten Tournament starts April 24 in East Lansing, Mich. and the NCAA Championships return to Athens, Ga. and begin May 15.
"This year's schedule will challenge us as we add a North Carolina team that is very good on paper. We've got some difficult road trips up front and then come immediately home to face Notre Dame and the Texas teams. That should be a rocking weekend. A schedule like ours always scares a coaching staff, but in the end, players want to play in these matches. Our guys will be ready. In terms of the conference schedule, we have some difficult road trips along the way as well as an opportunity to potentially stop Ohio State's incredible 10-year run. We want to get our fans out and appreciate the passion with how this team competes."