COLUMBUS: Those who follow college men's tennis closely know that Ohio State has a powerhouse program.
Almost no one else does, however — even on the Buckeyes' own campus.
"The college tennis public knows we're a good, solid squad," said hard-nosed coach Ty Tucker, a former player for the Buckeyes. "But I think to be considered the real deal, you've got to have the big trophy."
The Buckeyes (33-2), seeded No. 5 as the NCAA tournament reaches this weekend's round-of-16 matches at Illinois, have room in their trophy case. They've been knocking on the door of national prominence for years. They just need a breakthrough win for their first title.
As is the case with most non-revenue sports on a sprawling campus, most of the players' fellow students are unaware of the success of the program. That's particularly true at Ohio State, where people plan weddings and funerals around the start times of football games but are oblivious to just about every other team.
Meanwhile, other thriving programs get lost in the shuffle.
"When we talk to certain people and we mention tennis and our ranking and our history, we get some weird looks because they don't expect such good results," said Blaz Rola, a junior who is a native of Slovenia.
That could change, obviously. And soon.
The Buckeyes take on No. 12 Texas A&M (19-12) in the round of 16 on Thursday at the Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex/Atkins Tennis Center in Champaign, Ill., on the University of Illinois campus. They consider it an advantage that the NCAA tournament is being held over the next two weeks at a Big Ten site, on courts they're familiar with, before some fans, friends and family, and in the typically fickle seasonal weather in the Midwest.
The Buckeyes are confident.
"This team brings a lot to the table," said another junior from the Columbus area, Peter Kobelt. "We're pretty deep and pretty talented. I think everyone should be looking out for us."
Tucker recalls past NCAA tournaments played in 90-degree heat, requiring players who survived three matches in four days by getting fluids via IVs.
Ohio State is bucking a trend by contending, since warm-climate schools draw tennis players due to 12 months of practice and play outside. The Buckeyes have to go indoors, a lot. They are hardy souls, conditioned to play in strong, swirling winds when they're not waiting out spring rainstorms.
"Not too many people North of the Mason-Dixon Line have a national title in men's tennis or any so-called outdoor sports," Tucker said.
The Buckeyes have done everything over Tucker's 14 years but win their final NCAA match.
Ohio State went 11-0 in the Big Ten this past season to capture its seventh conference tournament title in the last eight years. The Buckeyes are 347-44 since 2001 as a Top-25 team. They have won their last 172 home matches, dating to 2003.
Senior Connor Smith, with a 34-6 record, leads the Buckeyes in singles wins this season. Kobelt, a lanky 6-foot-7 with a thunderous serve, went 32-7. Freshman Chris Diaz was 31-4.
In doubles, Devin McCarthy and Ille Van Engelen are a team-best 26-2 overall. Rola and Kevin Metka are a perfect 21-0.
"There are several really big teams that can compete for a national title: Virginia, (four-time defending champion) USC, UCLA, us and a couple of teams that can surprise. There are a couple of favorites, but if we manage to play good tennis on certain days, we can pull it off," Rola said. "I'm certain that the guys believe it, I believe it, the coaches believe it."
Tucker recruits all over the world — the Buckeyes also have two players from Germany and one from the Netherlands — but almost half the roster is from Ohio. Rather than seeking out the highest-ranked junior players, he looks for kids with an upside and an attitude who don't mind hard work.
"We're known as a hard-working program," he said. "Some of the players who don't really want the hard work tend to go other places. Maybe they were blue-chips in high school. It makes the job much easier; you don't have to convince these guys that, 'Wow, I told you I was going to tickle you and give you candy all day and now we're going to practice 20 hours a week.' I think they know what they're getting into."
A&M, playing at home, beat the Buckeyes earlier this season. Ohio State's players haven't forgotten.
"A lot of the guys on the team are going to take this one personally," Kobelt said. "We feel like we let one go down there earlier this year. They are a very good team, a well-coached team. They're going to be ready to go as well.
"But we're going to play with a chip on our shoulder."