The Ohio State men’s tennis team is ranked No. 1 nationally, won the national indoor title in February and has just completed its ninth straight undefeated Big Ten regular season.
This weekend, the Buckeyes head to East Lansing, Mich., for the Big Ten tournament, which it has won seven of the past eight years. A cakewalk, right? Don’t dare suggest that to coach Ty Tucker or his players, who face eighth-seeded Michigan State in a quarterfinal today.
The truth is, Tucker expected this to be a bit of a rebuilding year, and the dominance the Buckeyes (27-3, 11-0) have enjoyed in recent years has been replaced by a series of close calls. Eight of their 12 conference victories have been decided by one or two matches.
“I told people early on I thought the math for this year’s team was 4-3 or 5-2,” Tucker said. “I never thought it was going to be 7-0 while I eat Klondike bars in the corner with chocolate all over my face and a big smile. I knew we’d have to coach more. I knew the big points were going to matter more. I knew guys would have to understand early on that we were in battle.”
The Buckeyes had to replace several key players from last year’s team that reached the NCAA semifinals, including NCAA singles champion Blaz Rola (who is on the verge of breaking into the top 100 in the professional rankings; he’s 111th in the ATP rankings).
Senior Peter Kobelt of New Albany has led the way for Ohio State this season, with a 19-4 record as the No. 1 singles player in dual matches. He has been backed by juniors Hunter Callahan and Kevin Metka, a Worthington Kilbourne graduate, and freshman Ralf Steinbach.
As Ohio State’s success has continued, so has its opponents’ desire to knock the Buckeyes down a peg. That’s particularly the case in Columbus, where Ohio State set an NCAA Division I record for home winning streak in any sport. The record stands at 189 matches dating to 2003.
“They’ve had to grind — absolutely,” Tucker said. “There was pressure on their back the whole way with (the home winning) streak and the national indoor (title) and wanting to keep the Big Ten undefeated regular-season streak. When was there a match when there wasn’t a lot riding on it?”
Metka said the team embraces the challenge.
“I think it helps us work harder in practice,” he said. “Ty has kind of put it in our heads that we don’t want to be the team that lost the streak. It helps motivate all of us.”
So Metka dismisses the notion that the Buckeyes are an overwhelming favorite this weekend. Illinois is the second seed, and Ohio State faces a potential semifinal matchup against Purdue, which lost only 4-3 to the Buckeyes in West Lafayette, Ind.
“There’s not much room for error,” Metka said. “It makes it more exciting going into every match knowing it could go either way, and we’ve had to play our best tennis to get through the matches.
“Going into the season, I think the coaches and even some of the players thought this might be more of a rebuilding year. I think everyone on our team likes proving some of these people wrong.”