Photos: Taylor Soule
The No. 46 Drake men’s tennis team continues its Missouri Valley Conference regular season schedule when it travels east to take on Bradley and Illinois State this weekend. The Bulldogs will start the weekend off against the Braves of Bradley University on Friday afternoon and will compete in their last away match of the regular season on Saturday against the Redbirds of Illinois State.
Last year, the Bulldogs beat both Bradley and Illinois State en route to earning the regular-season conference crown, and they are looking to do the same this year. Drake is the only ranked team of the three and is considered to be the favorite in both matches. Despite both teams’ lackluster records, head coach Evan Austin stressed that it was critical for his team to continue to play as well as they have all season.
“I think in conference play, everything changes no matter what the records or rankings are,” head coach Evan Austin said. “We know going on the road and playing at Bradley and Illinois State isn’t going to be easy, so we have to be ready for highly competitive matches on both Friday and Saturday.”
Drake’s top singles player, junior Anis Ghorbel, also noted that both teams — especially Bradley, who is the weaker of the two opponents — recognize their underdog status and would most likely be playing very high risk tennis in hopes of a victory.
“I think even though we’re favored this weekend, we have to go out there and prove it by showing a high level of intensity,” Ghorbel said. “Both teams will be playing loose against us because they are the underdogs, so we have to make sure to play like we usually do.”
“Most of the guys in Bradley’s lineup are at a similar level, and their coach has done a very good job getting them to compete harder and play with more confidence,” Austin said. “I wouldn’t say one guy really sticks out on their team, but they have solid players throughout.”
The real test of the weekend will be against the Redbirds, as Illinois State is one of the teams — along with Drake and Wichita State — that have been in the race for the MVC crown the last few years. The Redbirds are led by the 58th ranked doubles team in the nation, consisting of Tuomas Manner and Alexander Pelaez. It was that duo that defeated juniors James McKie and Jean Erasmus in the fall season, but McKie said that the Drake pairing of himself and Ghorbel could cause problems for the ranked duo this time around. McKie said that winning the doubles point would be instrumental in getting the victory on Saturday.
“They (Illinois State) also have good players at one, two and three singles, so if we come out slow in doubles, anything can happen,” McKie said. “If we get the doubles point in both of these matches, it will help to dominate from there.”
Austin said that the lineup Illinois State usually runs with has caused problems for a number of teams this season.
“Illinois State can be a little tricky because they can put four or five lefties in their lineup,” said Austin. “Pelaez and Manner are both obviously dangerous players, and they have a number of new guys who are getting more and more experience.”
Besides being part of a nationally ranked doubles team, Pelaez is also a fierce singles competitor at the first singles position for the Redbirds. The last two meetings have pit Drake’s Ghorbel against Pelaez, with Ghorbel coming out on top each time.
“Just because I’ve beaten the guy the last two times we played doesn’t mean I can relax,” Ghorbel said. “He is a very good player and can surprise anybody at any time, so I just have to stick to the game plan; I know can beat him.”
Illinois State’s Skip Span and Manner round out the top three spots in singles, and those two are capable of playing excellent tennis. It will likely be up to McKie and Erasmus to defeat those two for the Bulldogs to win.
“It would obviously mean a lot for us to go out and play great on the road this weekend,” Austin said. “If we can take care of business, then we have to feel good about our chances of being able to win out at home.”