Iowa men's tennis' struggles approaching historic levels

BY TOM CLOS | MARCH 27, 2012 6:30 AM

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The Iowa men's tennis team is on pace for the worst season in program history.

The Hawkeyes have lost 10-straight matches, hold one of the worst records in the nation at 1-12 with nine meets left, and are poised to pass Don Klotz's 1963 team (1-13) as the least successful in Iowa tennis history.

"I've never had a year like this," 31-year head coach Steve Houghton said. "We've had losing years, for sure, but never anything like this."

The Hawkeyes' worst year under Houghton to date was in 2004. That spring, an Iowa team that featured one starting upperclassman lost its final 14 matches en route to a 3-17 record.

This season, though, the Hawkeyes returned six upperclassmen from a team that went 8-13 in 2011.

Those six players have a combined singles record of 8-27 in 2012.

"It sucks," senior Tom Mroziewicz said.

Mroziewicz is one of two seniors who were expected to lead the Hawkeyes on the stat sheet this season. He and Will Vasos have instead compiled a 2-15 record in singles. Vasos, at 1-11, has struggled every match in what has become a recurring nightmare on the court.

"Will goes out there with a great attitude every time, and I give him credit for that," Houghton said. "But basically the same scenario keeps happening over and over again: He can't get over the hump."

Other underachievers this season include freshman Matt Hagan and sophomore Jonas Dierckx. Hagan was named the Missouri Valley Player of the Year last fall, but he hasn't looked the part; he has floundered to a 2-9 record in singles. Dierckx has lost eight of his last nine singles bouts after starting the season 3-0.

Problems plaguing the bottom of the lineup have compounded the troubles at the top. Iowa has used nine different players in the No. 5 and No. 6 positions. Chase Tomlins, the most consistent player at the bottom of the lineup, recently re-aggravated an injury, and his status is unclear.

As a team, the Hawkeyes have a 17-52 record in singles.

Doubles play has struggled as well this season. The 15-19 record — which was 8-1 until early February — has been characterized by missed opportunities and costly errors.

"I tell our guys that it's wrong to look back at our close doubles matches," Houghton said. "They need to remember only what happened earlier in the match, and too many times we haven't."

Houghton said the losing has begun to weigh on his players when they're on the court.

"As the losing has continued, you begin to wonder about nerves — and it has become a factor," he said. "Guys are clutching the racket a little tighter in situations, not wanting to repeat history."

Houghton said he thought his veteran squad could handle a rigorous nonconference schedule that included six nationally ranked teams.

"In past years, we've played really well in nonconference," Vasos said. "Hopefully, it's flip-flopped this year, and we can do well in conference play."

That will be a steep hill to climb for Iowa, which plays in one of the best conferences in college tennis. The Big Ten features eight nationally ranked teams in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association rankings, with three in the top 25.

"It's a real challenge with the Big Ten teams," Houghton said. "I'll keep saying that over and over again, with everyone we play."

The possibility of a dubious record is not lost on the players. Houghton said the team will try everything the Hawks can think of to get out of this tailspin.

"[The losing] is not an easy thing to take for anybody," he said. "We're going to have to fight our way through it."

When asked to sum up the season, he provided a thorough synopsis of the lost year.

"It's a perfect storm of losing guys through injuries … in combination with a really ambitious schedule," he said. "If I had known all of these things were going to happen, I would have had a different schedule."

Follow DI men's tennis reporter Tom Clos on Twitter.

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