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Illini Pull Out All Stops to Reach Sweet Sixteen

The University of Illinois once again hosted the first two rounds of the NCAA Division I Championships, but this year it was a really close one - both getting there and getting out.

Dennis Nevolo, Illinois's No. 1 Player
© Marcia Frost
As of the April 24th Campbell's/ITA National Ranking, the Fighting Illini men were at No. 24, giving them little chance of playing host to the NCAAs. Auburn University was in position at No. 15 and looking at that coveted opportunity. A lot can change in college tennis in a week and no one knows it better than this team.

April 29, 2012 will be a day that Brad Dancer will never forget. It marked his first Big Ten Championship as head coach of the Illini. The Orange and Blue pulled off an upset of top-seeded Ohio State for the title. It was the first trophy they had taken home in this arena since 2005. Each year since they had watched the Buckeyes win the top prize.

The celebration of the Big Ten Championship also came with a bonus. The win lefted Illinois to the No. 16 spot in the ITA rankings. In just two days, they went from wondering where they would be playing the NCAAs to hosting Auburn as well as Western Michigan and Drake.

Action at the Khan Tennis Center was exciting from the beginning at this NCAA Championship first round. Match one was between Drake (No. 48) and Auburn (17). After the latter took the doubles point, the singles matches kept everyone on suspense with the Bulldogs coming out of a 0-2 deficit to tie the score at 2-2.

After Auburn retook the lead 3-2, the only remaining matches on the court were at No. 3, where Daniel Cochrane of Auburn battled Jonathan Hadash, and at No. 6 with Lukas Ollert of Auburn fighting against Drake's Ben Mullis. It was too close to call which would finish first, but in the end it was Ollert who sealed the 4-2 win for the Tigers with a 6-3,1-6,6-3 score, while Cochrane was left standing ahead at 6-3,4-6,5-4.

It was not quite as close in the match between Western Michigan and the Fighting Illini. After the Orange and Blue took the doubles point, wins from Dennis Nevolo, Ross Guignon and Tim Kopinski led them to a 4-0 sweep of the match. They would need the time to rest up for the challenge ahead, as Coach Dancer had already been warned by a few colleagues that "we had no shot in the doubles point and the match would go 4-3 one way or the other."

Only half of that prediction would come true. The doubles was tight, but Nevolo and Roy Kalmanovich beat 9th ranked Andy Mies and Alex Stambev, 8-6. It was followed by a win at No. 3 by Stephen Hoh and Bruno Abdelnour, giving the home team the 1-0 lead.

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