With the conference season only a week away, the No. 38 Wisconsin men's tennis team will have one last chance this Sunday to sharpen their skills as they host No. 70 Illinois State and Western Illinois.
The Badgers, who stumbled on their last two road trips by dropping all three matches to ranked opponents, earned their first victory in nearly a month against Marquette (6-1) Wednesday night. With an encouraging effort across the board, head coach Greg Van Emburgh believes the squad is back on track, improving to 8-4.
""This [win] really helped with the whole team chemistry and I feel like this was definitely a positive performance for us, not only to get the win, but as a group,"" he said. ""As a team, they really responded well. They know what's at stake this year, and I think they're going to really rise to the challenge.""
For players too, the victory seems to alleviate some of the stress surrounding their performance.
""It still kind of stings because we thought we could win some of those matches,"" freshman Billy Bertha said. ""In the coaches' minds and our minds, it helps calm the water a little bit.""
The calm could not have come at a better time either as this weekend's all-Illinois doubleheader is the only task standing between the Badgers and conference play, which begins on March 21 against No. 10 Illinois. Van Emburgh acknowledges that this weekend will be a much-needed tune-up before taking on a team that is a strong contender for the conference title this year.
""There are going to be matches that are going to help us prepare for other matches and to make sure we're geared up, we're working on things and improving,"" Van Emburgh said. ""You always want to have matches before conference matches. You don't want to go in there cold. It gives us two solid teams to play and then the following Sunday we'll start with Illinois.""
Illinois State is 6-4 this season after winning four out of its last six matches, but a win at Nielsen on Sunday would be a first for the Redbirds, who are winless against the Badgers in 20 meetings. All the same, the Badgers are careful not to put too much stock in past records or discount any opponent.
""The team differs every year so we shouldn't look back on the stats,"" sophomore Patrick Pohlmann said. ""We should play and try to win every game at every spot.""
Against Western Illinois, the Badgers have little history, winning the teams' only meeting. The Leathernecks fell to 2-7 last week with losses to Creighton and Drake and are re-examining their own doubles pairings before facing Wisconsin. Bertha, however, defends the need to anticipate a fight.
""Especially in tennis, a game here and there can decide the whole outcome, so you don't want to go in there flat or thinking that they're going to lay down,"" he said.
For the Badgers, the extra motivation and practice hours can only fortify their offensive. In a game that is as much mental as physical, Van Emburgh thinks the men are ready for whatever's next.
""It's never questioning their work ethic, it's just sometimes questioning the determination,"" Van Emburgh said. ""We were determined [Wednesday], we refocused, and I think that's really going to help us through the rest of the year.""