Photo: Connor McCourtney
The Drake men’s tennis team will hit the road this weekend en route to Rockford, Ill. The Bulldogs have spent the week preparing for contests against the Western Michigan Broncos and the Northern Illinois Huskies.
The Bulldogs are looking to add to their seven-match winning streak. The team has not lost a match since Feb. 25 against a nationally ranked Minnesota squad. Drake is looking to remain focused this weekend and enter conference play as a dominant force in the Missouri Valley.
Last week, Drake was ranked No. 71 in the nation, but due to the nature of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association’s ranking process, the squad is absent from the top 25 this week. The Bulldogs’ win over Creighton was no less impressive, but the fact that the Bluejays hold no top-tier wins this season affected the rankings. Head coach Evan Austin believes that garnering two wins this weekend would help put the squad back in the rankings, possibly even into the top 65.
“We are annoyed [about being dropped for the rankings], but that won’t stop us winning,” sophomore James McKie said. “We know we are the team to beat. We will be back in those rankings soon. However, the rankings aren’t our main goal. Our main is goal is to win the conference title, which will happen.”
The weekend won’t be a cakewalk for the Bulldogs, especially in Saturday’s tilt against Western Michigan. The Broncos have faced multiple nationally ranked opponents this year, and have a very impressive win against the Purdue Boilermakers, now ranked No. 60 nationally.
“They have nationally ranked wins over teams like Purdue, so they can obviously play at a very high level,” Austin said.
Like the Bulldogs, Western Michigan has faced its fair share of Big Ten adversity this season. Whereas Drake lost to Minnesota and Iowa, its only two losses of the season so far, Western Michigan has lost to Iowa, Michigan and Northwestern (and Nebraska, who will join the conference next season). The Broncos were just a match away from defeating No. 67 Northwestern, and they battled fiercely against the other Big Ten teams.
Western Michigan has also competed against teams in the Missouri Valley Conference. The Broncos took on Illinois State on Feb. 19, but lost 1-6. The Bulldogs’ result against Western Michigan would be a way for them to gauge their progress in comparison to Illinois State, who many considered to be the conference frontrunners along with Drake.
On Sunday, Drake will face off against a competitive Northern Illinois squad. The Huskies don’t have the same all-around balance as the Broncos, but they are very competitive at the top three singles positions.
“Northern Illinois has a younger group of guys,” Austin said, “but they have been improving throughout the year, so we’ll need to come right back on Sunday and compete hard.”
Like Western Michigan, Northern Illinois has faced its share of Missouri Valley Conference competitors. The Huskies have played Illinois State, Southern Illinois and Bradley so far this season, falling each time to the Valley squads. In nearly every match the Huskies have provided stiff competition, with their top three singles players often notching the only points for the team.
The Bulldogs’ success this weekend will rely on strong play from senior Mauricio Ballivian and sophomores Jean Erasmus and James McKie. These three sit atop the Bulldogs’ singles lineup and will be tested the most in both matches.
One thing Drake has prided itself on this season is its depth at singles, which will have to remain strong this weekend despite the loss of junior Jonathan Hadash at the sixth position. Hadash is suffering from a back injury, and his return this season is unknown. Junior Cesar Bracho has returned from injury and is filling in for Hadash at the final slot.
The Drake women’s tennis team kicks off Missouri Valley Conference play this weekend against in-state rivals Northern Iowa. The Bulldogs are looking to add to their three-game winning streak and make a strong first impression in conference play. Last season, Drake finished 2-5 in the MVC, but this year’s squad has improved under the tutelage of first-year head coach Paul Thomson.
The Northern Iowa Panthers are a very similar squad to the Bulldogs, as both programs have garnered nine wins this season, often against similar competition. Like the Bulldogs, the Panthers have won against the University of Missouri-Kansas City and North Dakota, but both teams have suffered losses against in-state rival Iowa State.
The match should be close, as Drake has faced this squad three times before in individual competition. Last fall both teams competed in the Drake Fall Invitational and the Northern Iowa Fall Invitational. Both teams kicked off their spring seasons in the Missouri Valley Conference Individuals Tournament.
Sophomore Manca Krizman, junior Jess Aguilera and senior Jessica Labarte were the only three Bulldogs to take victories off of the Panthers in those previous meetings, with Krizman winning in the fall and Aguilera and Labarte at the MVC Individuals Tournament.
Strong play will be needed at every position, in both singles and doubles, if the Bulldogs are to obtain the victory in Sunday’s match in Cedar Falls.
The Times-Delphic will have results from all three Drake matches this weekend in Monday’s issue.
Ballivian named Player of the Week again
On Monday, Drake senior Mauricio Ballivian was named MVC Player of the Week for the fourth time this season and for the seventh time in his career. The Bulldogs’ top singles player was undefeated in both of his matches last week against Creighton. He dispatched the Bluejays’ No. 1 Billy Paluch in straight sets, and did not lose a single game in the match. Ballivian also teamed up with sophomore Anis Ghorbel to win 8-3 in No. 1 doubles over Creighton’s top duo. Ballivian and Ghorbel are ranked No. 72 in the nation in doubles play.
Ballivian owns 179 wins during his career, which ranks sixth on Drake’s all-time list. He needs five more victories to move into fifth. He has won seven of his last 10 matches and owns a combined 46-13 record in singles and doubles this season.