Among the list of goals drafted in the preseason, the No. 27 Wisconsin men’s tennis team included what would be the program’s first-ever Big Ten title.
Now the time has come to make or break that goal as the team begins their march through the Big Ten Tournament against No. 32 Minnesota.
Wisconsin enters the tournament seeded No. 4, directly below the only three teams the Badgers lost to in conference play this year — Ohio State, Illinois and Michigan. But due to strong performances in all three matches, the Badgers have not lost an ounce of optimism when considering their coveted prize.
“I’m going into the Big Tens thinking we have a chance to win the title,” junior Marek Michalicka said. “It all depends on the first match when we play Minnesota — everything starts there — but I think if we can beat those guys then we’ll have a pretty good shot at Ohio State.”
Minnesota enters the tournament as the No. 5 seed after finishing up a 13-9, 6-4 season. The last time the two teams met was just under two weeks ago when Wisconsin claimed a 5-2 victory in Minneapolis.
After winning the doubles point in that contest, only Michalicka and Luke Rassow-Kantor endured losses at the No. 1 and 5 singles positions, respectively.
It was only Michalicka’s second loss of the season.
Several members of the team said they do not expect the Gophers to rearrange their roster much, if at all. Instead, Wisconsin is preparing for an always-energetic Minnesota team that will simply try even harder to win.
“They switched a lot at the beginning of the season, their doubles and singles, but now they’ve found a consistent team,” sophomore Patrick Pohlmann said. “Everybody from that team knows where they’re playing — they’re going to play the same lineup.”
Though the match serves as another chapter in the Wisconsin-Minnesota “border battle,” the nature of the meeting will be a little more personal for Pohlmann, who played on the same tennis team with two of Minnesota’s players, Julian Dehn and Tobias Wernet in their native Germany.
When the two teams last met, Pohlmann and Michael Dierberger handily won a doubles match against Dehn and Dino Bilankov.
“I love playing against them,” Pohlmann said. “We were on a team for like three years together in Germany, and we were actually good friends before we came here and now we are rivals. It always motivates myself a lot.”
At practice Tuesday, it was evident the entire Wisconsin team is feeling upbeat about heading into the Big Tens.
The emotional loss to Ohio State as the conclusion to the regular season has not held a dark cloud over Wisconsin. UW defeated four ranked opponents over the course of a five-match winning streak before testing, and ultimately losing, to one of the best teams in the country in OSU.
Assistant head coach Evan Austin believes that while the Badgers are currently playing their best tennis of the season, the team’s potential has yet to be reach its peak.
“We’ve played really well — I don’t think we’ve played our best match yet, but I think we can keep continuing to get better and work hard,” he said. “But in the last month we have really played some good tennis and I think we can take that confidence and that momentum into the postseason.”
Despite losing to each of the three teams seeded above it, UW has never shied away from the big matches of the season. Wisconsin is just the fourth team to have scored three points against Ohio State all year, and fell to Michigan and Illinois by one point as well. Additionally, the Badgers have not experienced consecutive losses since late February.
“We’re definitely a team that looks forward to those big matches and we like the opportunities,” Austin said. “We kind of sense those moments, so I think the postseason is definitely somewhere we can shine.”