Nebraska men’s tennis player Will Gleason had a tough decision to make last summer.
The Lincoln native just wrapped up his fourth year in the program with his best record in two seasons. The Huskers also had their best season in Gleason’s career.
For Gleason, he said that he wanted to see out his goal of leading them to the NCAA Tournament to the school’s first appearance since 2011.
As his fifth and final season is coming to a close, Gleason and Nebraska might fulfill his mission with a 12-9 record. The Huskers sit at No. 45 in the ITA rankings and hover on the bubble of an at-large bid. And Gleason has been a big reason for that.
“(Last year) was a great stepping stone and that basically propelled me to say like ‘Let’s see this out’ and prove that it was not a fluke,” Gleason said. “There is a chance that we make (the tournament) and that would be a fitting way for me, at least in a way that I would feel happy in life that I sent this program in the right direction in my last year.”
Gleason’s improvement in 2023 is a key reason for Nebraska’s success this season.
He has an 11-11 record in singles play and an 18-11 record in doubles. Both are his highest totals since his freshman season in 2018 when the Huskers won just two Big Ten matches.
That season was Sean Maymi’s first as the head coach in Lincoln. Gleason and Maymi are the only two left standing from that season and have grown together plenty over the past five years.
“I think the progression of the team and the progression of Will as a player, it has taken a while to get here, but I think it has been a rewarding journey,” Maymi said. “We would have loved to have a few more wins along the way. I feel like we have all learned a lot in this time and Will has developed into a great player and a great leader for this team.”
Gleason’s leadership has been the biggest impact the senior has made on Nebraska as a captain for the second consecutive season.
He has been a mentor for most of his teammates as the only player born in the United States on the Huskers’ roster.
His fellow captain, sophomore Roni Hietaranta, said he looks up to Gleason.
“This year, as the two captains of the team, (he’s taught) me a lot about leadership,” Hietaranta said. “Leadership is the biggest thing. I’ve learned how to be a good teammate, how to treat people around you.”
Maymi said he has noticed a shift for Gleason as captain, becoming more impactful for the whole team.
“He is really taking more ownership this year,” Maymi said. “He has really stepped up to take care of his stuff, but he is doing a better job at holding the others accountable and just accepting the responsibility as a leader. I am really proud of him for that.”
The leadership role was something that Gleason had to adapt to and sometimes felt hard considering he is the only American and has been around for five seasons.
Now that Gleason has found his role, it’s come a little more naturally to him.
“It wasn’t easy adopting the role because starting off, I wasn’t always the most vocal person,” Gleason said. “I would rather just stay in my own lane and lead by example but sometimes that is not what the team needs. You have to be uncomfortable, that is the only way you can grow.”
Much like it took time for Gleason to develop on and off the court, getting to Nebraska was a tough journey in 2018.
A four-star recruit from Lincoln Southwest, the main thing Gleason said he was looking for was playing time during his recruitment period. He had opportunities to play all over the country but was drawn to the Huskers because of the academics at UNL.
But shortly after he enrolled, there was a coaching change. Maymi took over the program after he served as the associate head coach at Michigan.
Since then, Maymi and Gleason have grown together and laid the foundation for a Nebraska program without much previous success.
“This was my hope for Will, that he is able to get this program back on track to where we are doing some things that have never been before,” Maymi said. “He has been of those teams that turned things around. It hasn’t been easy.
“The fact that he’s leaving the program better than when he got here, I think he is going to be pretty proud of that. Whether we make (the NCAA Tournament) or we don’t, he’s really shaped the future of the program.”
The other Huskers know how much Gleason has meant to the program. Hietaranta said whenever he steps on the court, he knows the bar that Gleason set and plays for him.
The whole team has rallied behind him to win the most Big Ten matches in the school’s history, achieve the highest postseason ranking ever and make just the third NCAA Tournament appearance in school history.
“(Gleason) has contributed so much to the program in his five years,” Hietaranta said. “It’s a good lesson this year to also remember you are playing for something more than yourself. For Nebraska, for Will this year because it is his last matches.”
After he won just one conference match in 2018, Gleason has enjoyed how far Nebraska tennis has come in his five years. He hopes his favorite memory — making the NCAA Tournament — is still to come.
The emotions with the season, and his career, coming to a close in the next few weeks have finally started to hit him, especially after a big win on Senior Day.
He is happy with the process of it all, even if Nebraska’s best moments are to come after he is gone like winning a conference title and making noise in the NCAA Tournament.
“It took so much for us to just finish fifth (in 2022) and how much more it’s going to take and how much more suffering and sacrifice we are going to have to go through to finish first,” Gleason said. “It might not be for another five years or so. But if that is what it is going to take, that is what it is going to take.
“It’s all finally starting to come to fruition. If it does happen, it is really going to mean a lot.”