The Two Tops
Jan. 20, 2009
By Larry Watts
Paint a big bull's-eye on the backs of each member of the Ohio State men's and Northwestern women's tennis teams. And while we're at, make the targets on the backs of the Buckeyes' Bryan Koniecko and the Wildcats' Maria Mosolova even bigger than the rest of their teammates.
Based on last year's track record and the returning veteran lineups, the ITA recently named the Big Ten's defending champions as the best the nation has to offer. Even though the Wildcat women held the top spot most of last season, it marks the first time each program holds down the top ranking heading into the season.
"It's not that good to have that target on your back right away," says Ty Tucker, who heads into his 10th season as the Buckeyes' head coach. "It's great the coaches think that highly of us, but it is going to be a struggle each time out.
"I'm sure the guys feel great about receiving that kind of respect, but now you have to respond in every match. We were No. 2 for most of last year, but then at the middle of the year we lost a player to an appendectomy and we wound up losing in the (NCAA) quarterfinals (for the third straight year)."
Pollard's club posted the best record (29-2) in school history last season only to see an end to its No. 1 status in the NCAA quarterfinals.
"For the program, this (ranking) is both flattering and exciting, but we haven't done anything to earn it yet," says the Northwestern coach, who lost one senior who only played doubles from that powerful lineup. "These rankings are just based on predictions and we're realistic about that. There are more good teams out there in women's tennis this year than there were last year. You enjoy the limelight, but you also know there's a lot of work to be done.
"As (Boston Celtics coach) Doc Rivers said after they won the NBA title, 'Now we have to be ready for every team to play us like it's the seventh game of the NBA finals.' We're going to get everyone's best shot and to lose to us is no big deal, but to beat us will make their season."
While Koniecko, a senior from Long Island, N.Y., and Mosolova, a sophomore from Moscow, Russia, each received the No. 1 nod in the singles rankings, each coach is confident they have three players who can fill that slot when needed.
At Ohio State, senior Steven Moneke, who is ranked No. 3, of Alten-Buseck, Germany and Justin Kronauge (No. 6) of Dayton back up Koniecko, who has already won two All-America titles in singles and one in doubles. Moneke and Balazs Novak of Nyiregyhaza, Hungary also combine to rank No. 11 nationally in doubles.
"All three of our top players live together and they really are pretty even," Tucker says. "They all chose to come here rather than trying to do something right away on the pro tour. Once they finish, they know they are prepared to do more at the next level.
"The three of them are so unselfish, everything is about the team. They all know I am a coach who likes to maneuver the lineup and there's no real lock on the No. 1 spot. They'll each get an equal number of shots at playing No. 1 and they never complain. When you have three guys like that, who check their personal goals at the door, you can't go wrong."
"Who plays No. 1 for us really doesn't matter," Pollard says. "Everyone has simply bought into the continued success of our program over who actually plays No. 1. And I think our fourth and fifth players would be very successful playing No. 1 at most schools in the country.
"Right now I'm comfortable with any of our top three at No. 1. Maria is as tough as anyone out there, but if the match is on the line, there's no one I would rather have out there than Georgia. And Sam is a very quiet person who just simply goes about her job and wins."
Each head coach took different paths to bring their respective teams to the nation's elite status.
Tucker, who grew up a Buckeye, played at Ohio State before trying his hand at the professional tour and then returning to Columbus as an assistant coach in 1998. The Buckeyes were 0-24 in the Big Ten during his two seasons as an assistant, but he was still named head coach when 29-year veteran John Daly retired at the end of the 1999 season.
All Tucker has done is lead the Buckeyes to three regular-season Big Ten titles and four league tourney crowns, including his current streak of three. The three-time Big Ten coach of the year, who has coached nine All-Americans, has had four teams reach the NCAA quarterfinals. He has had nine singles and seven doubles qualify for the NCAA postseason.
"When we went 0-24 in the Big Ten, that was the first time in my career I had ever been like that," he says. "It's hard to apply for a job when you're 0-24, but the administration had faith in me and knew I was hungry. I always knew coach Daly and I were on the right path and when we won that first Big Ten (tournament) title in 2001, some of those same players who were with us through 0-24 were on that team.
"The key to our success has been building a fence around Ohio and locking down those players. We wanted other coaches to think twice about spending $800 for a recruiting trip to Ohio. Before we could even think about any foreign players, we had to stake our claim to Ohio first.
"It's not a lot of fun doing the international recruiting," he adds. "I had my experience in foreign countries while playing on the tour and it can get tiring. You're not out there seeing the sights in Paris and London, you're arranging your schedule to spend 10-12 days at the Irish Junior Open or German Junior Open, where you will sit and watch tennis from 7 a.m. until 9 p.m. each day. Then there's the joy of going back to the seventh floor of a hotel which doesn't have air-conditioning."
Pollard, on the other hand, has thrived in building a solid Big Ten program into a national power by taking Northwestern's portfolio not only nationally, but worldwide as well. Herself a native of Surrey, England and a former NCAA doubles champ at Mississippi State, Pollard began the transformation with Ruth Barnes of Cambridge, England in 2001. That has led to Marine Piriou of St. Pol-De-Leon, France, former three-time Big Ten champion Cristelle Grier of Epsom, England, Murray, Mosolova and now freshman Elena Chernyakova of Moscow.
"A lot of people go to a school because of the coach or facilities, but the bottom line here is the school itself," says Pollard, who in 10 seasons has yet to lose the Big Ten championship. During her tenure, her teams have posted a 94-6 record in the Big Ten regular season and are 35-0 against Big Ten opponents in the postseason. The Cats currently own a 64-match winning streak in conference play.
"Northwestern's academic reputation gives us the advantage to go all over the country and internationally," says the four-time conference coach of the year. "Eventually this is all going to catch up to us and that's only going to be good for the conference. We keep improving, but in the end, we hope we are helping the conference get better each year as well.
"Having the international players and interacting with them adds a new dimension to our program. The people in our program not only leave here as better players, but they leave as better people as well. You learn an awful lot through diversity and these Russian players have an incredible work ethic, yet they are very grateful to get this kind of experience."
Pollard's resume also includes 31 individual NCAA qualifiers, the NCAA doubles champions in 2006, seven Big Ten players of the year, six Big Ten freshmen of the year, 29 All-Big Ten selections and 36 Academic All-Big Ten recipients. The Wildcats have been to the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament the past five seasons.
"I think these rankings show we play some pretty good tennis in the Midwest," Pollard says. "Illinois proved that a few years ago when they won the men's title (in 2003). Weather does not have to be an obstacle if you want to be an elite team."