Open Bluejay Season

Jan. 29, 2011

Editor’s Note: The following first appeared in the University of Iowa’s Hawk Talk Daily, an e-newsletter that offers a daily look at the Iowa Hawkeyes, delivered free each morning to thousands of fans of the Hawkeyes worldwide.

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Football has Joe Paterno. Basketball has Tom Izzo. Tennis has Steve Houghton.

Houghton, the Dean of Big Ten men’s tennis coaches, will serve up his 30th season as Iowa’s head coach when the Hawkeyes host Creighton Sunday at 1 p.m. at the Hawkeye Tennis and Recreation Complex.

The Hawkeyes return to the court on the heels of a 13-win effort in 2010. That success, coupled with a bounty of upperclassmen, has Iowa prepared for a challenging season.

“We’ve kind of beefed up our schedule this year due to the fact that we’ve gotten quite a bit better over the past few years,” said Houghton. “It’s now easier to schedule some of the better teams. But with that comes travel. So we’re going to be home this weekend and then away for a couple weeks. Then we’ll be home again for about a month before we get into Big Ten season.”

Iowa will navigate a non-conference schedule that includes stops in Chicago, Arkansas, Orlando and Tampa, before opening Big Ten play against Illinois March 6. The Fighting Illini, currently ranked No. 16 by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association, are one of nine Big Ten teams ranked by the ITA. The strength of the Big Ten is one of the reasons Houghton says it’s important to challenge the players in the non-conference, but it doesn’t change the expectations.

“The schedule will certainly be more challenging in terms of won-loss,” said Houghton, “But in the end what really matters is two things; how we do in the Big Ten Conference — we do have a stronger non-conference schedule this year that should help prepare for us for Big Ten season. The second thing is, you’re always looking for ranked teams that you can beat. It’s much like basketball, what you want to do is have some signature wins, so to speak, and then as a result improve your chances of getting into the NCAA Tournament.”

The NCAA Tournament appears to be the next step for a program that has combined for 38 victories over the last three seasons, including 20 against nationally-ranked opponents. The three-year win total represents the greatest three-year stretch the program has seen since 1991-93. Houghton credits last year’s senior class for much of today’s success. The key this season, says Houghton, is to continue building off that success.

“Last year’s three seniors — Patrick Dwyer, Reinoud Hall and Tommy McGeorge — did a really good job for us and have a lot to do with the success we’ve had the last three years. When they came here we were mediocre at best and they made us quite a bit better. We will miss them for sure. Having said that, I think we’ve got some good replacements that are eventually going to be at their level. Whether they’re going to reach their level as freshmen remains to be seen.”

Houghton said this year’s lineup could be a work in progress, but he knows he’ll be able to work with Marc Bruche, who competed at the No. 1 position last season, and a handful of experienced upperclassmen. Junior Will Vasos and senior Nikita Zotov shared time at the No. 2 position last season, and senior Austen Kauss returns after posting a 13-6 record playing No. 6.

“We feel like we have really good strength at the top,” said Houghton. “Those guys will presumably be in the top four, in some order, and then we have a good mix of freshmen. We have five freshmen and some sophomores that have gotten quite a bit better too, so it’s really hard to predict what the lineup is going to be other than the fact that there will probably be changes as the year goes on. We’ll try to give a lot of guys a chance to compete because we’ve got good depth.”

Fans attending Sunday’s season opener will receive a Hawkeye head band, a chance to win an iPad and a first look at the 2011 Hawkeyes.

“I think the guys are fired up,” said Houghton. “I’m always interested the first day or two of practice because it’s very revealing how much guys have been playing over (semester) break. It was obvious to me that the guys had been playing a lot. They came back in shape so we were able to start back at a higher level than maybe we started sometimes in the past.”