Ohio State Tennis Looks to Make History
In Columbus, under the radar, something remarkable has been developing over the past eleven years. The #1 ranked Ohio State men’s tennis team is carrying on a winning streak of 183 consecutive home matches, dating back to 2003, which places them one win away from tying the all-time NCAA Division I record for any collegiate sport. The record also happened to come in tennis, when, between 1991-2011 the Stanford’s women’s tennis team won 184 straight home matches. The Buckeye men’s tennis program last lost at home on April 5, 2003 to Illinois. The following day they went on to beat Purdue and have not lost at home since.
Arriving to this point
When Ty Tucker became the Head Coach of the Ohio State men’s tennis team following the 1999 season, he took over a program that had been Big Ten Champions only three times in its entire history: the Buckeyes were Co-champions in 1915, champions in 1943, and champions in 1991 (’91 was Tucker’s final year as a player, when he earned All-American honors for OSU before turning pro). The program struggled throughout much of its history, especially in the few years prior to Tucker’s hire. They finished last place in the Big Ten from 1997-99, going winless in Big Ten play in ‘98 and ‘99.
Tucker turned the program around immediately. In 2000, his first year as coach, the team improved to 4th in the Big Ten. They finished 2nd in the conference from 2001-2005, and have finished 1st in the conference and undefeated in conference play every year from 2006 to the present. Tucker’s teams have accumulated a record of 412-63, going an astounding 133-11 in Big Ten play. In post-season competition, every one of Ohio State’s fourteen all-time NCAA team tournament appearances have been since Tucker took over, with the Buckeyes making the sixty-four team tournament each of his seasons at the helm.
In addition to the team NCAA tournament at the end of each season, there is a singles NCAA tournament made up of the top sixty-four players in the country, and a doubles tournament consisting of the top thirty-two duos in the country. In these, Ohio State had their first ever singles NCAA champion in 2013 when Blaz Rola won the title, and their first doubles NCAA champions in 2012 when Rola and Chase Buchanan won it all. Beyond these tournaments, there is the ITA National Indoor tournament early in each season that features the top sixteen teams in the country. OSU won that tournament in Houston this February for the first time, defeating last year’s NCAA champion, Virginia, in the semifinal and the winner of the previous four NCAA titles, USC, in the final. It is nothing short of amazing what has been building over the past decade, and these recent successes are a confirmation of that development.
For readers who may not be familiar with the college game, a quick overview: head-to-head or dual matches are between two schools battling for four out of a total of seven points to win the match. Six of the points come from each of the singles matches, and one point goes to the winner of at least two of the three doubles matches. The six singles competitions are set so that a teams’ #1 player competes against the #1 player from the opposing school, #2 against #2, and so on. What’s particularly amazing about this season is the Buckeyes lost their #1, #3, #4, and #6 singles players, as well as a doubles specialist, from last season’s roster to the pros, graduation, or transfer. Despite having to replace 4/6 of their lineup, the Buckeyes haven’t missed a beat.
A roster built locally
Tennis is one of the most international sports, and some of the top collegiate players from teams across the country come from abroad. Former Buckeye and last year’s NCAA champion, Rola, for example, is from Slovenia. However, despite the international landscape of the game, and despite the fact that many of the top American players come from warmer climates, the Buckeyes draw much of their talent from central Ohio. Tucker talked about how recruiting Ohio was his aim right from the start.
“We had a goal that the best Ohio boys had to stay in the state. Our #1 goal was to put a fence around Ohio, so to speak, and to get all of the best Ohio kids to stay home”, Tucker said.
This objective is being met. While the Buckeyes continue to recruit international players, the current OSU roster is anchored by central Ohio locals Peter Kobelt from New Albany playing #1, Chris Diaz from Bishop Watterson playing #2/#3, and Kevin Metka from Worthington Kilbourne playing # 4.
“It’s a dream come true”, Kobelt said about playing for his hometown school. “Growing up as a kid I watched football and basketball and all Ohio State sports. I grew up a huge Buckeye fan, and to play for Ohio State just means that much more being from here. When you’re tired and you don’t have any energy left, you’re playing for something way greater than yourself and to be able to play with two other guys that are in the same situation is pretty special”.
Eleven years in the making
A lot has taken place since April of 2003. Most of the players on this year’s team were in Elementary school at the time the streak began. It has been a collective effort to get to this point, and Tucker realizes that his former players are as much a part of the streak as are this year’s student-athletes.
“It links teams from the past together”, Tucker said of the winning streak. “Eleven years ago the streak started. Now you start getting guys coming back, and you’ve got guys that are even doctors now that started the streak”, Tucker added, referring to former Buckeye and 2003 Big Ten Athlete of the year Vincent Ng.
Only recently has the record become something of a motivating factor.
“We never even talked about it until last year when it got close to ten years”, Tucker said. “We won a few more matches and all of a sudden now we’re close to the all-time win streak of any sport. Then about six or seven matches ago we started getting close and you see it as an opportunity to happen and you start wanting it, something that you never even thought about, now all of a sudden it gives you something tangible to hold on to, and all these guys to hold on to. I go from never wanting to hear anything about any kind of streak to now all I want to do is get it”.
The Buckeyes have continued winning, despite a challenging schedule. Though, as Tucker points out, “when you’re a top 5 team, you take everybody’s best shot, because everybody comes in loose like they have nothing to lose and they realize that if they get that win over you their ranking is going to go up significantly”.
Even with that target on their back, the Buckeyes have defeated some of the top teams in the country, including #9 Texas A&M, #11 North Carolina, and #15 Kentucky at home this season, among many other top programs during the course of the streak.
OSU tennis (17-2 this season) has positioned itself on the brink of making history. They have a chance to tie the all-time NCAA record on Friday, March 21st when they take on rival Michigan. The team anticipates a big-time atmosphere.
The senior Kobelt sums it up well, “We’ve always had great fan support here at Ohio State, and lately, the numbers have gone up every year. We would love to have as many people as we could have, especially with the whole record thing, but we also play Michigan, so there isn’t a better day to come out and watch a Buckeye tennis match that’s for sure”.
The match is set to begin at 6:00pm at the Varsity Indoor Tennis Center (880 W. Henderson Road). Entrance is FREE.
More information about the Buckeyes tennis program can be found at www.ohiostatebuckeyes.com.
Photos courtesy of OSU athletics.