Lend an ear to anyone around the men’s tennis program and you’ll hear, loud and clear, some version of the same refrain: This is the year the drought ends.
Forty-eight long years have elapsed since the team won a Big Ten Championship, but players and coaches are brimming with confidence and optimism ahead of the upcoming season, fully convinced they are capable of bringing the conference title to Bloomington.
The Hoosiers return all but one member of last year’s squad, which finished second in the Big Ten with a 9-1 record. Its only blemish came on the road at the hands of Ohio State, which has won each of the last six conference championships in undefeated fashion. Despite their recent dominance, dethroning the Buckeyes is not impossible, said IU Coach Randy Bloemendaal.
“We’ve made a move every year since I’ve been in charge, but last year we made a big jump in results,” said Bloemendaal, who is in his fourth season in charge. “Now, guys are continuing to grow in confidence and figure out they have the potential to overtake Ohio State and win the Big Ten.”
With the fall season’s tournaments — which saw the team achieve moderate success by its standards — now in the rearview mirror, the Hoosiers will spend the next few months sharpening their game in preparation for the pursuit of IU’s first Big Ten crown since 1964.
“We came so close last year,” said junior Josh MacTaggart, who clocked in at a team-high 55th in the ITA Preseason Men’s Singles Rankings. “We just have to take one more stride this year.”
MacTaggart was also keen to point out that the crucial match against Ohio State will be at home this season, giving the Hoosiers a “big chance” to seize the upper hand in conference play.
Senior Jeremy Langer, ranked 106th by the ITA, said he was encouraged by the team’s play in last year’s trip to Columbus, Ohio, despite losing the contest.
He also emphasized that this is a new season, so their focus will come from belief in themselves, not a desire to defeat the defending champions.
Bloemendaal said he believes depth is a major strength of the team. In addition to giving him the luxury of being able to create favorable matchups against opponents, a strong eight-man squad will also keep each player motivated throughout the season.
“They will push each other and be less flat at the end of the year,” Bloemendaal said. “Hopefully, when other teams fade, we will pick up steam.”
Bloemendaal added while the team isn’t yet where it needs to be to achieve its ultimate goal of a conference crown, it’s on the right trajectory.
“The guys aren’t up to the same level now that they were during the middle of last season,” he said. “But they are twice as good as they were last year at this time.”
Echoing his coach, MacTaggart stressed the importance of the next few months in dictating the team’s success in conference play, which begins March 21 at Purdue.
“Our matches before the Big Ten season are very important — if we’re not ready by then, it’s too late,” he said.
If practice so far is any indication of what the season has in store for the Hoosiers, 2012 may be a year to remember for the racquet-wielding cream and crimson, Bloemendaal said.
“The biggest challenge early in the season will be for players to embrace the team’s role as one of the favorites in the conference,” Bloemendaal said. “I’m not a big fan of the underdog role. We will prepare like the favorite for every match, regardless of whether we are or not.”