A first-hand factual and possibly comical account into the journey for the Drake men's tennis team in its visit to Champaign, ill., to battle No. 15 Auburn on Friday (May 11) by Drake Assistant Athletic Communications Director Sean Palchick.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - For the 48th-rated Drake men's tennis team the NCAA Tournament and Champaign, Ill., are synonymous together as the Bulldogs awake in this tiny Illinois hamlet looking to make history when they face No. 15 Auburn at noon at the Khan Tennis Center on the campus of the University of Illinois.
Drake is making its sixth NCAA Tournament appearance and for the fourth-straight time the destination has been Champaign.
As Assistant Athletic Communications Director, I've been along on the ride for all four visits here, from former head coach Chase Hodges in 2007 and 2008 to current head coach Evan Austin, who has guided the team to the Land of Lincoln the past two seasons.
If you count the appearance of the women's basketball team in the 2008 Women's National invitation Tournament, a bitter 48-44 loss, I've seen the Bulldogs play in the postseason here five times.
While the journey does selfishly allow me to visit one of my favorite grocery stores in the country in Meijer, for my favorite candy, which I did on Thursday evening with Dennis Francois, Associate A.D. for External Affairs, I'd love to see Drake find success in a place where it has eluded them.
This group of Bulldogs led by All-Missouri Valley Conference performers Anis Ghorbel (Sfax, Tunisia), James McKie (Edinburgh, Scotland), Alen Salibasic (Tuzla, Bosnia&Herzegovina), Jean Erasmus (Windhoek, Namibia) and Robin Goodman (Cambridge, England) aren't lacking in confidence. If you've seen them play this season that is clearly evident as Drake has equaled a school record for wins (24) set in 2008 when the squad entered the NCAA Tournament with a 24-0 mark.
They love to have fun but make no mistake they enjoy winning and success that has been a staple in this program even more.
The trip over to Champaign began yesterday (May 10) as the team departed the Drake campus just after 10:00 a.m. with a small but boisterous group of fans seeing the Bulldogs off on the start of their six-hour drive. Much of the traveling party spent the time sleeping in Drake's two-van caravan.
On and off again construction made the driving interesting, but the Bulldogs pulled off the road just outside the Quad Cities' airport for some lunch.
As much as this group loves to sleep, it may enjoy eating even more and watching them demolish their sandwiches is an adventure. As for myself, according to a long-standing custom, my Drake Relays' t-shirt enjoyed its share of my lunch, thankfully not as much as in year's past.
The Bulldogs soon headed out for the remainder of their drive and then a visit to the Khan Tennis Center where the team went through a brisk 1.5-hour practice. Drake worked on the fundamentals of each of its respective games trying to get work in while not giving too much away to its opponents.
The beauty of the Bulldog players is that no task, no opponent, no obstacle seems to faze them. They take to the court believing that if they stick to their strengths that anything is possible and based on the track record over the past six seasons, the results have proven this out.
As for me, while my title may say assistant athletic communications director, or even SID for short, it may as well should have been MacGyver (popular television show that ran from 1985-1992), as you never know what trouble I may walk myself into attempting to do my job.
Trying to maneuver around the courts to take some photos took on a life of its own as the benches served as my stepladder to the best shots.
Once the photos were taken it was time to plug in my computer and see what I had. Like trying to find out Where in the World is Carmen San Diego or even Where's Waldo, my biggest problem was locating a power outlet outside near the courts. It took a few minutes but I found my prize and the game was on.
On a side note, much like our facilities staff at Drake, the people running the tournament in Champaign put on a first-class show and it is always great time for the Bulldogs because of their efforts.
Following their practice, the Bulldogs grabbed a quick shower and headed out to dinner at their favorite eating establishment in Champaign, Olive Garden.
The great thing about Drake is the support other coaches show to other programs and it was evident as Austin's phone kept buzzing away with texts during dinner.
Head men's soccer coach Sean Holmes proved to be the biggest culprit, as he loves the one-liner and Austin enjoyed the back-and-forth banter. I've been on the road many times with Holmes and like Austin, it never lacks for comedy.
An avid followed of all New England sports teams, especially the Boston Red Sox, what Austin didn't like was the score from Fenway Park, where my first-place Cleveland Indians were winning 7-2, en route to an 8-3 victory. I caught the final out of the game on the radio when leaving Meijer and if I'm that happy later today after Drake plays Auburn, you're going to have an ecstatic group of Bulldogs savoring their first-ever NCAA Tournament victory.
Drake aims to extend their winning streak to 12 straight matches with a win over Auburn. Match time is set for 12:00 p.m. (Click here for live stats). Check back to www.godrakebulldogs.com for further details on the Bulldogs' NCAA Tournament experience.