Four years ago, it was a leap of faith.
While Ohio State’s men’s tennis team had long established itself as a national power under Ty Tucker, the women’s team lagged behind.
Melissa Schaub was still new at Ohio State when the coach had the task of recruiting the women’s players who would become the foundation of the team’s rise. Those current seniors came from all over. Sandy Niehaus is from Cincinnati, Gabriella De Santis arrived from Venezuela, Miho Kowase from Japan and Ferny Angeles Paz from Peru.
They have done what Schaub envisioned. Their arrival allowed Schaub to sell even more coveted players on Ohio State. Junior Anna Sanford of Olentangy Orange followed, as did New Albany’s Francesca Di Lorenzo, now the NCAA’s top-ranked player.
The result is that, at least in terms of NCAA seeding, the women have caught up with the men. Both teams are seeded third in the NCAA championships, which begin this weekend.
The men will play visiting Butler in the first round today. The women open on Saturday against Buffalo. The men will play host to the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament for the 12th straight year. It will be the second time for the women, with the first coming only last year.
The success of the men’s program, and how it has been achieved under the relentless Tucker, has served as incentive for the women.
“It’s a goal for us to achieve what they do every year,” Sanford said.
Schaub said, “I think if you’re a coach at Ohio State, if you’re a student-athlete at Ohio State, you come here because you somewhat want that pressure. You want to try to be the best. That’s why you come here. That’s why we have jobs here.
“Seeing the amount of work by the men’s team — Ty and (assistants) Justin (Kronauge) and Schills (David Schilling) — they’re out here competing every single day. You see, OK, this is the work it takes to be the best. It gives the girls an example: All right, if they can do it, we can do it, too.”
And so they have. The Ohio State women ascended as high as second in the national rankings this spring. The Buckeyes are 28-2 and their only losses are to No. 2 North Carolina and No. 1 Florida. They have a 31-match home winning streak.
Now comes the biggest test, and for Niehaus, it is a bittersweet time. When the Buckeyes won the Big Ten tournament title, her joy was tempered by the realization that this was the last go-round for the seniors.
“I could not have had a better experience with those three girls,” she said. “We all have grown so close.”
The Buckeyes reached the women’s quarterfinals last year and could do even better this time. Tucker, who oversees both teams as the program’s director of tennis, said that women’s team’s path is less cluttered than the men’s.
“I feel there are 12 or 13 men’s teams that are Final Four-worthy,” Tucker said. “On the women’s side, there are probably five teams that are Final Four-worthy. Our women’s team has a very good chance to make some real noise.”
If that happens, Di Lorenzo probably will lead the way. She is the top seed in the singles and will team with Kowase in doubles in Athens, Georgia, where the tournament moves after the first two rounds of team competition.
Five Ohio State men will compete in singles and/or doubles in Athens. Mikael Torpegaard, the runner-up last year, is seeded No. 2. Canadian Hugo Di Feo will be seeded between 9 and 16, and Big Ten freshman of the year JJ Wolf is an at-large pick.
Torpegaard will team with senior Herkko Pollanen in doubles. Di Feo’s partner is Martin Joyce. Though Di Feo is in only his second season with the Buckeyes, this is his last year of eligibility because of NCAA rules regarding foreigners who delay their enrollment.
The OSU men have reached the team quarterfinals every year but one since 2006, but they are still looking for their first championship. Though Tucker is firmly in one-match-at-a-time mode, the potential is there because of Ohio State’s depth.
The Buckeyes (29-3), who were ranked No. 1 early this season, have won 13 straight since losing at Texas and Texas A&M in mid-March. Those losses — the Buckeyes had match point in each — shook their confidence for a couple of weeks, Tucker said.
Now it is back.
“We played some of our best tennis of the year in the semifinals and finals of the Big Ten championships,” Tucker said.
The Buckeyes are guardedly optimistic.
“There are a lot of great teams,” Torpegaard said. “For us to win it all, everybody on the team, without exception, is going to have to play 90 percent of (their potential). I believe we can beat the best teams like Wake Forest and Virginia. But you have to go into every match expecting to play someone as good as you or better.”