The Fighting Illini ended 2011-12 on a high note, highlighted by their first Big Ten Tournament title in seven years.
July 10, 2012
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - After a season filled with ups and downs, the Fighting Illini ended 2011-12 on a high note, highlighted by their first Big Ten Tournament title in seven years with a dramatic comeback win over six-time defending champion No. 3 Ohio State. The victory helped propel the Orange and Blue to the nation's top 16, earning them the right to host the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament for the 13th time in the past 14 years. There, Illinois fought its way to the Sweet 16 in a thrilling 4-3 battle with No. 17 Auburn. However, Illinois fell to top-seeded and eventual champion USC in the round of 16, ending the year 19-8 overall and 8-3 in the Big Ten.
Individually, senior Dennis Nevolo led the way with 32 singles wins and an NCAA singles round of 16 appearance, earning his second consecutive All-America honor. He and classmate Roy Kalmanovich both earned first-team All-Big Ten recognition as well as bids to the NCAA Singles and Doubles Championships.
The Orange and Blue kicked off the fall season at the sixth annual Olympia Fields Country Club Fighting Illini Invitational, where No. 7 Nevolo was named Most Outstanding Player after going 4-0 in singles play. As a team, the Illini were 10-6 in singles and 1-3 in doubles action throughout the three-day tournament, which also featured players from Alabama, California, Kentucky, Notre Dame and Texas. Nevolo garnered Big Ten Tennis Athlete of the Week accolades following the competition.
Illinois continued that success the following weekend at the University of Virginia Ranked +1 Invite, where Kalmanovich finished second in his bracket and junior Bruno Abdelnour placed third. Kalmanovich kept up that momentum with a strong run at the ITA All-American Championships in Tulsa, Okla. The Framingham, Mass., native earned Big Ten Athlete of the Week honors after playing his way through the qualifying rounds of the tournament to join Nevolo in the main draw. Both Illini made runs to the quarterfinals, making Illinois the only school with two players among the final eight at the national championship event.
The following week, juniors Stephen Hoh and Abdelnour played their way to the USTA/ITA Midwest Regional round of 16, while tandem Hoh and freshman Tim Kopinski advanced to the same round in doubles play. Kopinski improved in his next tournament, going undefeated in both doubles and singles without dropping a set at the Wildcat Invitational. There, the Palos Hills, Ill., native teamed up with fellow newcomer Ross Guignon, who went 2-1 in singles action. Hoh made his own impressive run a week later, posting a runner-up finish at the Big Ten Indoor Championships, where Guignon, Kopinski and Abdelnour ended their fall in the round of 16.
In the final event of the fall, Nevolo played his way to the title match of the USTA/ITA National Indoor Championships, knocking off four nationally ranked opponents in the process. The Gurnee, Ill., native came up short in the final, but his runner-up finish marked his first time playing in a national collegiate tournament finale and was the first time an Illini advanced to the championship match of that tournament since Ryan Rowe took second in 2007.
The Orange and Blue opened the spring ranked 17th in the nation and welcomed freshman Farris Gosea to the squad to start the season. The Illini kicked off their campaign with a trip to Coral Gables, Fla., for a final individual-style tournament, the Gardnar Mulloy Miami Invitational, hosted by the University of Miami. The field also included competitors from Texas A&M and Texas Tech. There, Roy Kalmanovich went 3-0 in singles to earn Most Outstanding Player accolades, while the team went a combined 12-8 in singles and 4-5 in doubles.
Illinois got off to a hot start in dual action with back-to-back shutouts against Detroit Mercy and Ball State before cruising to a 4-2 win over Notre Dame two days later to wrap up a stellar home-opening weekend.
The squad could not extend its streak, however, suffering a 4-2 loss to No. 18 North Carolina in opening-round action of ITA Kick-Off Weekend, hosted by Georgia Tech. The Illini rebounded the next day with a 4-3 win over No. 19 Georgia Tech in the ITA Kick-Off consolation match. Nevolo was named Big Ten Athlete of the Week for his efforts throughout the weekend, which included two wins over top-30 opponents.
The Illini then faced another pair of top-20 teams on the road, splitting the weekend with a disappointing 7-0 loss to No. 10 Duke and a 4-1 victory over No. 18 Tennessee. The up-and-down trend continued with a 6-1 loss at No. 5 Florida the following weekend.
After two weeks off, Illinois opened its conference slate with a couple of 6-1 road wins over Nebraska and Iowa, marking its first back-to-back victories since winning its first three matches of the season. The squad won its next four contests, highlighted by a 4-3 thriller over No. 17 Texas A&M at home.
In the midst of a 6-0 stretch, which included five Big Ten wins, the Illini were shocked at home, falling in a 4-3 heartbreaker to Michigan to snap their longest winning streak of the season. The next day, the Orange and Blue bounced back to defend their home court with a 6-1 win over Michigan State.
Illinois could not get back on track the rest of the regular season, losing three of its next five going into the conference tournament, including a 7-0 loss to No. 2 Ohio State.
A week later, the Illini traveled to Evanston, Ill., for the 2012 Big Ten Tournament. There, Nevolo and Kalmanovich were each named first-team All-Big Ten at the conference awards banquet, marking Nevolo's fourth straight honor and Kalmanovich's second. The Illini cruised past Northwestern and Michigan with a pair of 4-0 shutouts to advance to the title match, where they faced No. 3 Ohio State.
The 24th-ranked and third-seeded Orange and Blue stunned the top-seeded Buckeyes in a thrilling 4-3 comeback to snap OSU's 92-match winning streak against teams in the Big Ten and its six-year reign as tournament champions. The victory ended Illinois' seven-year drought without a title and marked its first win over Ohio State since 2007.
The win helped the Illini leap to No. 16 in the national rankings, giving them the opportunity to host the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament. Illinois continued its postseason run with a quick 4-0 win over Western Michigan and came out on top in a 4-3 battle with No. 17 Auburn to punch its ticket to the Sweet 16 for the 12th time in the past 14 years.
The Illini traveled to the University of Georgia for the round of 16, where they faced top-seeded USC. This time, the Orange and Blue could not pull off the upset, falling 4-0 to the eventual tournament champions to end the season.
Nevolo and Kalmanovich were back in action the following week in the NCAA Singles and Doubles Championships. Seventh-seeded Nevolo played his way to the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive year, earning his second All-America honor, while Kalmanovich fell in opening-round action to defending champion and top-seeded Steve Johnson, who went on to win the title again. Together, the No. 21 tandem fell to eventual tournament winners Blaz Rola and Chase Buchanan.
Nevolo was named Advantage Illinois Most Valuable Player by his teammates and finished his career at Illinois tied for sixth in career singles (116) and combined (211) wins and ranked ninth in doubles victories (95). His career-best 32-10 mark in singles play is good for 10th on the Illini single-season wins list. Nevolo became the second Illini in program history to earn All-Big Ten recognition in each of his four seasons and is the first two-time All-American since Ryan Rowe (2006, 2007) and Kevin Anderson (2005, 2006, 2007).
Kalmanovich secured a career-high 15 doubles victories throughout the 2011-12 campaign and went 25-14 in singles action, marking the second time he has reached the 25-win mark in his career.
Abdelnour was also solid all season long both on and off the court, garnering the NCAA's Elite 89 Award for posting the highest grade point average among all sophomores, juniors and seniors in the NCAA round of 16. The Allepo, Syria, native tied for second on the team with a career-high 25 singles victories, playing at Nos. 3 and 4 and earned the team's Chris Martin Fighting Illini Spirit Award and the Outstanding Scholar-Athlete Award for securing the highest GPA among all male junior athletes at Illinois. Abdelnour ended the season ranked 15th regionally.
Hoh took home the squad's Strength and Conditioning Award after posting a career-high 23 wins throughout the season and earned a No. 20 regional ranking. Kopinski was named Player to Watch and Most Improved following a stellar freshman campaign that included a team-leading 22-17 mark in doubles along with 25 singles wins, which tied for second most on the team.
Freshman Guignon and Gosea also contributed throughout the year, winning 11 singles matches apiece while splitting time at the No. 6 spot.
Illinois ended the season ranked 15th in the nation and second in the Midwest Region.