BY JAKE KRZECZOWSKI | SEPTEMBER 16, 2009 7:20 AM
The Iowa men’s tennis team finished tied for seventh place with two other Big Ten teams last year, but just barely.
With just a point to go, the Hawkeyes fell to Wisconsin, 4-0, at the Big Ten Tournament in April and missed fifth place.
Head coach Steve Houghton has been optimistic about his team’s chances this season, though, describing his squad as a bunch of up-and-comers on the national scene.
“Last year was very similar to the year before, as we finished right in the middle of the Big Ten,” he said. “We’ve gotten a ton better over the past couple of years, and people around the country would probably label us a team on the rise.”
A team on the rise indeed. After finishing near the bottom of the Big Ten from 2004 to 2007, the past few years have been a vast improvement, with two seventh-place finishes in 2007-09 and 2008-09 — the latter year coming close to an even better ending.
While going from last in the conference to seventh consistently over a two-year span may seem like baby steps for a program labeled as being “on the rise,” it is important to note the strength of the Big Ten, which Houghton said is one of the top “two or three conferences in the country.”
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While the Hawkeyes have a fall schedule full of invitationals, the real fireworks will be touched off next spring. On April 2, Iowa will face No. 2 Ohio State, and on April 11, the Hawkeyes are scheduled to play the No. 12-ranked Fighting Illini in Champaign, Ill.
“Every Big Ten match is a big match for us,” senior Tommy McGeorge said. “They’re always a lot of fun.”
One instance of the Hawkeyes’ new-found prominence on the national scale is their invitation to participate in the Kickoff Classic in Waco, Texas, on Jan. 29, 2010, when Iowa will be pitted against No. 7 Baylor. The event traditionally brings in the top 50 or 60 teams.
One Hawkeye who definitely has that date circled is sophomore transfer Marc Bruche, who came to Iowa from Baylor via Germany and has a chance to compete for the No. 1 spot on the team, Houghton said.
Bruche is not the only new arrival that Iowa will look to for help this season. Two freshmen, Connor Gilmore and 6-8 Garret Dunn will be asked to make big contributions throughout the fall and spring.
However, the majority of the load will fall on the elders of the group.
Senior trio Patrick Dwyer, Reinoud Haal, and McGeorge, along with junior Will Vasos, will collectively assume the leadership role left behind by graduated senior Christian Bierich — last year’s Big Ten singles champion.
The crew has been working feverishly in the off-season with help from assistant coach Steve Nash, who employs a bevy of different techniques to make the Hawkeyes the best-conditioned team in the conference.
That work ethic has spilled over to the players, who have trained through the summer when there are no coaches to push them.
“You’re just always trying to stay in shape,” Dwyer said. “We’ve been hitting the ball for years, so it’s pretty much just making sure we’re ready mentally and physically.”