As Illinois Men's Tennis coach Brad Dancer enters his 13th season at the helm, he's got a 13-year tournament streak to think about. But he's got last season's second-round exit to think about as well.
"I always take responsibility as the coach," Dancer (pictured right) told HERO Sports, "and this was the first time I didn't feel we were peaking at the end. We just were not as sharp."
So the Illini failed to reach the Sweet 16 for the third time in Dancer's tenure.
With this in mind, the 2016-17 season started long before the first practice on August 22. Illini returners and newcomers traveled to play tournaments all summer. But that's not necessarily unique. What sets them apart from their competition, however, is the intensity with which they train over the summer.
Coach Dancer and his staff travel to every tournament that features one of their players over the summer. If one Illini player visits the west coast and another travels east, the coaching staff splits to accommodate their schedules. With this hands-on training year round, Dancer feels that his team never experiences an 'off season'.
"This really is a 12 month sport," Dancer said.
On-campus practices are voluntary over the summer and the coaches allow the men to create their own practice and class schedules. But a majority of the team stays in Urbana. On campus, their court time is unlimited. And this summer it was even easier to put in work as team was able to choose more online classes. One has to imagine this will translate into even more success for the already successful program.
And success breeds success. Tournament appearances bring recruits. Tournament wins bring better recruits. Illinois' incoming freshman competed in several ITA Summer circuit events this summer. 2016-17 commit Zeke Clark notched a win over a Columbia commit in the USTA National Boys 18s Kalamazoo tournament, and earned a spot in the upcoming U.S. Open Junior event and the USTA Men's Pro Circuit 50K singles main draw. He took home third place at this prestigious event, and will bring some newfound confidence into his first season in Champaign-Urbana, IL.
— Illini M Tennis (@IlliniMTennis) November 13, 2015
Aleksander Kovacevic and Alexander Brown ('17 commit) also competed in Kalamazoo and earned several wins of their own.
To round out the summer, the University of Illinois tennis program hosted a USTA Pro Circuit Event in August. Five current and former tennis Illinios tennis players competed in the tournament, and alumni Jared Hiltzik even took home the doubles title. Coach Dancer called it, "a great opportunity on our home courts." Kind of like summer itself.
Not many teams can compete on their home courts during the summer, let alone with several members of their team around them. With this advantage, the Illini look to start the fall tournament season on a strong note and accomplish their goal of even more success in the 2017 NCAA tournament.