By BAILEY TURNER
IOWA CITY, Iowa — The University of Iowa men’s tennis team had one of its most exciting seasons in recent memory, finishing 2019 with 18 victories, the most for the program since 1991. The Hawkeyes totaled six wins to tie for fifth place in the Big Ten standings, the best conference finish since 1993. In the end, Iowa finished No. 43 in the country, its best final national ranking in program history!
“It was a good season for us,” said Mellecker Family Head Men’s Tennis Coach Ross Wilson. “Having the wins that we had and having our guys maxing out their ability was fun to be a part of.”
Iowa posted 14 of its 18 wins at the Hawkeye Tennis & Recreation Complex, a school record for home victories in a season. Along the way, Iowa registered six victories over opponents ranked inside the top-75 in the final ITA national rankings (No. 20 Michigan; No. 33 Penn State; No. 39 Minnesota; No. 43 Utah; No. 62 East Tennessee State; No. 64 Drake).
“The way we beat Minnesota on the road; it was a close doubles point and eventually pulling the match out 4-3, was a huge turning point,” Wilson said. “I think that’s when our team believed that they could be one of best teams in the Big Ten and definitely one of the top-40 teams in the country.”
The Hawkeyes finished the season strong, winning five of their last six matches, to put Iowa in contention for its first-ever NCAA Tournament bid. When the Hawkeyes didn’t see their name during the NCAA Selection Show on April 29, it fueled the fire for next year.
“We were a much better team this year,” junior Kareem Allaf said. “We worked hard and had a lot of team chemistry. We put everything we had into this season, but the cards didn’t fall right in the end. I am grateful for my teammates and coaching staff because without them, none of this is possible. If we don’t make the NCAA Tournament next year, I would be shocked.”
Allaf led this year’s squad, earning second-team All-Big Ten accolades. The redshirt junior, who finished 2018-19 ranked No. 119 in singles by the ITA, also won six consecutive singles matches in the fall to become the third Hawkeye in program history to be crowned ITA Regional champion.
Iowa played a schedule that featured 12 teams that were selected for the NCAA Tournament. Of those 12, the Hawkeyes defeated seven (Western Michigan, East Tennessee State, Utah, Drake, Minnesota, Penn State, and Michigan).
“To beat seven teams in the NCAA Tournament, and to not get a bid is unfortunate,” Wilson said. “But this program has come a long ways in five years and every year we make significant improvements. Ultimately, I believe the guys will come back and will learn from this, making sure we take care of the matches we are supposed to win. Hopefully, we’ll be back and qualify for the NCAA Tournament next year.”
Freshman Oliver Okonkwo racked up a number of singles and doubles wins to help Iowa to a historic season. Okonkwo won 27 singles matches in the spring, which ranks fourth all-time in school history, and the most ever by an Iowa freshman. In doubles, Okonkwo amassed 24 doubles victories, which tie for second most in a single-season in Iowa annals. Sophomore Will Davies was another key contributor in 2018-19, totaling 28 singles wins, which is third most in a single-season program history.
Iowa returns six starters next season: Allaf, Okonkwo, Davies, Joe Tyler, Jason Kerst, and Nikita Snezhko, as well as junior Morgan Lohan. Senior Jonas Larsen is the only Hawkeye the team will lose to graduation. Larsen helped Iowa to 60 wins during his career, which ties for fourth most over a four-year span in program history.