After breaking the NCAA record for most consecutive home wins, the No. 2 Ohio State men’s tennis team didn’t have much time to catch its breath before a tussle with Big Ten rival No. 10 Illinois.
Over the past decade, the Fighting Illini (14-6, 4-1) have played second fiddle to the Buckeyes (21-2, 6-0) in the Big Ten, losing to OSU in the Big Ten Tournament in seven of the last eight seasons, and that tune held true Sunday as the Buckeyes won, 5-2, at the Varsity Tennis Center.
Coach Ty Tucker toyed with the Buckeyes’ doubles lineup and split up his No. 6 ranked duo of senior Peter Kobelt and redshirt-junior Kevin Metka to even up the teams.
“We’ve been doing the same thing over and over again and haven’t seen the improvement,” Tucker said. “We thought it might work well (to split Kobelt and Metka). Sometimes you catch lightning in a bottle and, you know, we did today.”
Redshirt-junior Hunter Callahan and redshirt-sophomore Chris Diaz cruised to an 8-4 victory over Illinois junior Blake Bazarnik and sophomore Alex Jesse.
Metka and freshman Marko Goles-Babic meshed well together, grinding out an 8-7 (7-2) win over junior Farris Gosea and sophomore Jared Hiltzik to claim the doubles point for the Buckeyes.
“I’m really proud of (Goles-Babic),” Metka said afterwards. “He stepped up and made some big returns and served well throughout.”
Moving to singles play, redshirt-freshman Ralf Steinbach beat sophomore Julian Childers 6-1, 7-6 (7-3) and Metka defeated junior Ross Guignon 6-3, 6-4 putting the Buckeyes one match away from another win.
The Illini came out with a new fire, though, and took the other four first sets including straight set victories against Diaz and No. 8 Kobelt.
With either Callahan or freshman Herkko Pollanen needing to come back from one set down, the Buckeyes were on their heels.
Both were able to win their second set, though, and use the emotion and enthusiasm of the home crowd to win in three sets.
Callahan clinched the match with a 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 win over Bazarnik and Pollanen put on the finishing touches with a 4-6, 6-0, 6-3 upset of No. 9 Hiltzik.
The team knew the importance of this match, as the winner would take sole possession of first place in the conference. The win gives the Buckeyes the inside track to the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament, set to begin April 24.
“We’re in the driver’s seat, also because we’ve won the Big Ten the past eight years … that makes us the top dogs.” Callahan said.
Tucker said he’s happy to see steady improvement lately, though, especially after the recent battles they’ve had.
“We’ve always played wars. Last Sunday we were at war with Michigan State, Friday night we were in a war with Northwestern,” Tucker said. “Today we played a little bit better tennis. Guys rise up a little bit and that’s what I was happy to see … in the past month that’s 15 percent better than we’ve played.”
The Buckeyes are next scheduled to play at Minnesota Friday at 3 p.m.