UNIVERSITY VILLAGE — The most amazing current winning streak in Chicago sports belongs to a team almost nobody follows.
The University of Illinois at Chicago women's tennis squad has claimed an NCAA-record 143 consecutive conference conquest — dating back to April 21, 1996.
Since then, the Flames haven't been defeated by a team in their former Mid-Continent Conference or the current Horizon League.
"I'm definitely proud to be a part of a team that has such a long streak," said Flames senior Haley Craig, the team's No. 1 singles player this season.
For the most part, the Flames barely have been tested, winning most of their matches 7-0 and 6-1. Only against Butler in 2007 and 2008 — both times in the Horizon League tournament championship match — did the Flames escape by a 4-3 margin.
Even though the Flames have had no success in the postseason NCAA tournament — they've never won a match versus the much bigger Division I programs — head coach Shannon Tully said the streak "is a big deal." She is a remarkable 110-0 in conference play entering her 12th season.
But Tully, 40, who lives a few blocks from the UIC campus in University Village, also realizes it can only last so long.
"The longer you go, the more destined you are to have a loss," said Tully, an eight-time Horizon League coach of the year. "It's going to happen eventually."
The coach who started the streak, Shanan Fennema, said it's "amazing" the Flames still haven't lost in conference play, especially considering the circumstances in which she took over the program in 1995.
"We were kind of like the 'Bad News Bears'," Fennema said. "We had crappy shoes and crappy rackets and crappy uniforms."
Fennema said she addressed her concerns with UIC Athletic Director Jim Schmidt, and he responded by investing in the program.
"We promptly got results," said Fennema, who recruited several foreign players on her way to winning Mid-Con coach of the year honors in 1996 and 1997. "And it's a testimony to Coach Tully, who's continued to recruit well."
Like Fennema, Tully has mined overseas gems. Her top player, Mariya Kovaleva of Kazakhstan, graduated last year after winning Horizon League player of the year honors all four years and earning 92 singles conquests.
Several other top players graduated from the Flames program in 2012, leaving a relatively new squad this year.
"But I still feel like they're going to be fine, and that's what I keep telling them," said Kovaleva, who lives in Pilsen. "The current players need to realize that a 4-3 win is still a win."
Tully said the Flames' competitive gap over Horizon League opponents — especially Detroit, Cleveland State and Wisconsin-Milwaukee — is closing, but UIC is still the team to beat.
Craig, the squad's only senior — and only American — said she absolutely doesn't want to be on the team that watches the streak end.
"It comes with pressure, but it also makes you hungry to win and continue it," she said.