URBANA — Zach Acton knows where he is spending the next 10 days: the Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex.
From 7 a.m. to midnight. The Illinois assistant athletic director for event management is the point person for the NCAA tennis championships, which start Thursday and run to May 28. To say Acton and his staff have been busy is an understatement.
“There are a lot of balls in the air right now,” Acton said during preparation at the courts Tuesday afternoon. “We’re off to a good start right now.”
On Tuesday, the eight men’s quarterfinalists had practices. The men’s team workouts continued Wednesday along with the eight women’s quarterfinalists.
The team tournament runs until the Sunday finals. That will be followed by next week’s individual singles and doubles competition.
So, what is Acton doing when it’s all over? Taking a three-day nap?
As has been an Acton tradition for years, he is loading onto a charter bus with his entire family for the short drive from Collison to Speedway, Ind., for the Indianapolis 500 on May 29.
The Actons have seats in the tower terrace behind the pits. They sit in the same section with the same people every year.
It’s a tradition started by Acton’s dad, Parker, and his grandparents.
Acton, 37, can’t wait.
“They pick us up in our driveway and take us right over to the track,” Acton said.
Acton’s wife, Emily, is going. Daughters Parker, Reagan and Brenna will attend when they get older.
Been there, done that
This is actually the second time in the last 10 years Acton has been involved in planning and implementation of the NCAA tennis tournaments while at Illinois.
He was part of Holly Stalcup’s staff that put on the 2013 NCAA tennis tournament.
Stalcup is now the director of stadium and game operations for the College Football Playoff.
Acton learned from the best.
“I’m guessing the stress levels and that process was much tougher in ‘13, because we’d never done it before,” Acton said. “Doing it this time around, I took a lot of the same stuff we did. I went through our old notes that Holly left in her files. A lot of rinse and repeat to be honest.”
For this year’s tournament, Acton and his staff started the planning process in May 2021.
“It’s been a year-plus in the works,” he said.
Facility upgrades were needed. All the courts have been resurfaced. It would have been helpful for Acton to attend the 2021 tournament in Orlando, Fla. But because of COVID-19, access was limited and he didn’t make the trip.
Acton always tries to get a look at other venues before Illinois hosts an event. One of his staff members went to East Lansing, Mich., last week for the Big Ten softball tournament. Illinois will host it in 2023 at Eichelberger Field.
One big change exists from the last time Illinois hosted: the number of teams. Back then, 16 men’s and women’s teams came to C-U. The finalist field has been reduced to eight on each side.
“It’s a lot easier in a lot of ways,” Acton said. “The weather in east central Illinois, you’re never sure what you’re going to get this time of year, popup thunderstorms. You get delayed and you’ve got to move inside. That just pushes schedules back.”
Rain is in the forecast for only one of the first four days of the tournament. The NCAA will make the call on whether to move some of matches inside if weather is an issue.
Acton has WCIA meteorologist Kevin Lighty on speed dial.
“He helps us out a lot,” Acton said.
The Illinois men’s and women’s teams didn’t make the NCAA field. Acton hoped to see both squads on the court.
“It would be 100 percent better all the way around,” Acton said. “That generates a lot of excitement in our community and our crowds would be bigger. We want our teams in this.”
Acton is staying in contact with Illinois men’s coach Brad Dancer and women’s coach Evan Clark, both of whom have offered their assistance.
Will Illinois try to host the tennis championships in the future?
“Our administration would have to make that call,” Acton said. “We put this bid in when Holly was still here. We’ve known we’d had this bid for five years.
“I don’t know what the future holds with it, but something we’re always open for. That’s above my pay grade if you will. I don’t make those decisions.”
Acton went to Armstrong High School, graduating in 2003. He played baseball and basketball for the Trojans.
“We had some good runs,” Acton said. “We got third place in state my sophomore year and went back my senior year in baseball. We lost to Tanner Roark from Wilmington, who went on to pitch for the Nationals.”
Armstrong didn’t have a tennis team. Acton has tried the sport one time and it didn’t go well.
“There was not enough court or fence,” Acton said.
Back in those days, Acton never imagined he would be running an NCAA tournament.
“I always was interested in sports and wanted to get involved in the field,” he said. “What goes into it is amazing. The behind-the-scenes stuff blows your mind with all the moving parts and all the people it takes to put this on.”
Acton, an Eastern Illinois graduate, started working at Illinois in 2011. He moved up when Stalcup left.