The Northern Illinois men’s tennis team will get the 2011 spring season under way this weekend on the road against Dayton and Butler.
The matches begin the start of a much tougher schedule this season compared to last year’s, highlighted by matches at No. 23 Wisconsin and No. 59 Northwestern.
“I think it’s a manageable schedule for us as a young team,” said NIU head coach Patrick Fisher. “We have to grow up for us to play at a certain level, which for us is that we aspire to win a conference championship. You have to play high caliber teams and I think the type of kids that we have are going to grow a lot.”
The Huskies return three players from last year’s squad that finished 10-13 overall and 1-4 in the Mid-American Conference, with the lone upperclassman being junior Roman Turtygin.
Also back are sophomores Maximilian Phillips and last year’s MAC Freshman of the Year Maksym Bartiuk. After finishing 13-6 and 3-1 in the conference at the No. 1 spot, the Ukrainian will be taking on added pressure to lead a young squad this season, while also having his eyes on the MAC Player of the Year award that eluded him in 2010.
“He’s not a secret anymore,” Fisher said of Bartiuk. “He’s definitely known. There’s no doubt that coming into the season he’s probably the best player in the league considering he lost once last year in conference play.”
NIU will be without the services of sophomore Mikhail Titov this season due to a torn labrum which required surgery in November. Titov, who spent most of the 2010 season at the No. 2 singles spot, will take a medical redshirt this spring while rehabbing the injury.
Added to the Huskie roster are freshmen Axel Lagerlof, Maksym Lagutin and Bryant Poggensee-Wei, as well as Troy University transfer Tyler Stephens. Lagerlof and Stephens joined the squad at the end of winter break, while Lagutin and Poggensee-Wei competed with the team during fall.
Even with the loss of Titov, Fisher believes that the roster is much deeper than last year’s.
“We have some really good players in our program,” Fisher said. “From where we started in the fall of 2009 to where we are now, we’re a completely different team, a much better team from top to bottom.”
Despite what looks to be a strong year for the MAC with most teams returning key players, Fisher is hopeful that the inexperience could turn into a positive for his young squad against some of the more veteran-laden teams.
“I think for us, when the matches get close, obviously, it’s about experience, but sometimes not having as much experience is a good thing because our guys will probably play a little looser,” the second-year head coach said. “There’s no pressure on us, we’re freshmen and sophomores. Western Michigan has won the MAC Tournament five years in a row. I think that will allow us to play freer.”
The Huskies will open play at 2 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 22, in Dayton, Ohio, against the University of Dayton before heading to Indianapolis to face Butler University at noon Sunday, Jan. 23.
For more information on NIU men’s tennis and Huskie athletics, visit www.niuhuskies.com.