MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — The Gopher men’s tennis team is pretty good — ranked 33rd in the country and currently third in the Big Ten standings.
But look a little closer and you’ll find something unique. Four players on the team — four of their top six players, in fact — hail from four small neighboring nations, totaling less than the population of Florida and roughly the size of Idaho, 5,000 miles away.
“Each of them plays a big role on this team,” coach Geoff Young said. “It’s very fun, to get guys from different parts of the world.”
There’s Matic Spec from Slovenia, Marino Alpeza from Bosnia, Josip Krstanovic from Croatia and Stefan Milicevic from Serbia, from four countries in the Balkans made up of the former nation of Yugoslavia.
“We were the same country 25 years ago — 27 years ago,” Milicevic said. “So people are completely the same, there’s just little differences. A little language, different accents, but pretty much everything is the same, culture, pretty much.”
How do you end up with so many guys — more than a third of the roster — from that one part of the world, 5,000 miles away, on the same team all the way over here?
“Coincidence,” Young said. “I’ve been coaching for a very long time and have not had that happen.
“To stay competitive, within top teams nationally, as every team, pretty much, around the country, you have to branch out and get the talent that’s available. And tennis is a very global sport, and we look everywhere.”
The pipeline to the Balkans actually started long before these four — way back to coach Young’s first season 11 years ago.
That assistant coach Urban Ljubic is from Slovenia himself certainly helps, and the talent in that part of the world is certainly plentiful. Look no further than Novak Djokovic.
But how these four ended up here has more to do with them than it does with any kind of recruiting philosophy.
“We all know each other, we knew each other before we came here,” Milicevic said.
Spec, now a junior, was the first of the four. But there was already an older Slovenian player on the Gophers when he got here, which helped.
“It’s really nice to have someone that brings you a little closer to home,” Spec said.
Being so far from home is has its challenges, but having each other makes it a lot easier.
“That’s a really good thing to have, up here when you’re feeling homesick. That you can have someone to talk to, in your own language,” Krstanovic said.
“I can always find some comfort in that,” Spec said.
“That’s a huge, huge thing,” Milicevic said. “Because if I didn’t have them, I don’t think I would be able to make it.”
“It’s just a small reminder of home on a daily basis and it just helps a lot,” Alpeza said.
“It’s a big deal,” Milicevic said, “it’s a really big deal,” for a team that wouldn’t be where it is without them.