Jackson Allen, a freshman on the Gophers men’s tennis team and former Shakopee standout, said he’s always wanted to go to the U and that his family has had season tickets for men’s basketball and football for “as long as I can remember.”
It had been even longer than Allen can remember, though, since the men’s tennis program advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16 — a milestone Allen helped the Gophers achieve this past weekend with upsets of Georgia and Oklahoma.
Allen was a 1-year-old the last time Minnesota advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2000. The Gophers earned their first spot in 18 years when Allen won the clinching match at No. 5 singles against host Oklahoma on Saturday.
“It’s nice to be back,” said Allen, who is one of just two Minnesotans on a roster filled with players from seven other countries. “Our regular season was kind of underwhelming. … The bottom of our lineup has been holding us back. But we all finally clicked at the same time.”
Allen is a member of that lower part of the lineup, with coach Geoff Young attributing some of the early struggles to a lack of collective confidence even after a strong fall season.
“He’s someone who was a late bloomer on the junior tennis scene and really got better and better,’’ Young said of Allen. ‘‘His junior and senior year, he was skyrocketing, so I was really excited to get him on the team. To have someone from Minnesota in the lineup when we’re doing so well is just awesome.”
In college tennis, seven team points are available: One for the team that wins at least two out of the three doubles matches, and one each for the six singles matches that are played simultaneously. The first team to four points wins.
Minnesota’s top three singles players — Felix Corwin of Elm Grove, Wis., Matic Spec of Slovenia and Stefan Milicevic of Serbia — are all ranked in the top 100, giving the Gophers a formidable foundation to compete against top teams. Their NCAA surge has been fueled by improved play by the bottom of the lineup.
In a 4-3 win over Georgia in the NCAA opener, Josip Krstanovic earned a straight-sets win over a ranked opponent at No. 4 singles, while Marino Alpeza scored a big win at No. 6 singles.
And against Oklahoma, Krstanovic and Allen both secured key victories. Allen’s was the match clincher, a three-set victory after dropping the first.
“It was really exciting,” Allen said. “A lot of other guys were pulling a lot of the slack, so it felt good to come through.”
The Gophers will need more of the same against No. 3 Ohio State in the round of 16 Friday in Winston-Salem, N.C..
The Gophers have played the Buckeyes close twice this year — losing 5-2 in the regular-season and 4-1 in the Big Ten tournament — and Young said those losses helped fuel the Gophers’ NCAA run so far.
“We have what it takes to possibly get it done. We don’t have to count on them having a bad day, necessarily. It will be close, and I think they will have a battle on their hands. But they know that, and they’ll be ready and they’re very good,” Young said.
“Most of all, we’re just going to use this week and not let it be a honeymoon and try to get better each day to give ourselves the best chance possible.”