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Northwestern women’s tennis: a season retrospective, and a look towards the future

With three seniors ending their Wildcat careers on a high note, the Big Ten Regular Season Champions will have to retool for 2019.

After getting back to the Round of 16 for the first time in five years, Northwestern (23-6) fell 4-0 to third-seeded Duke. But despite the disappointing (and somewhat anticlimactic) end to the season, 2018 was a successful year for Wildcat women’s tennis. Behind strong performances throughout the season from a veteran squad, Northwestern rebounded from a rough start to nab their first Big Ten trophy in four years, making the season a successful one. Erin Larner and Maddie Lipp still have the doubles tournament remaining, and Larner will participate in individual singles as well (both tournaments start next week). But for all intents and purposes, Northwestern women's tennis has finished their 2018 campaign.

The duals season started out slow for the Wildcats. Coach Claire Pollard always schedules a difficult non-conference slate and this year was no exception, with seven out of their eleven opponents ranked in the top 30, and another (Oregon) reaching the NCAA Tournament as well. After starting 3-0, the Wildcats dropped three in a row to UCLA, Texas, and the aforementioned Ducks, and looked to be in a bit of a downward spiral. So immediately, they ripped off an eight-match winning streak, getting victories over two of the four national semifinalists in the process.

After starting the streak with a nail biter over Washington, the Wildcats sandwiched 4-2 wins over Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech (who will meet for a spot in the national championship on Monday) around a 4-3 victory against in-state foes Illinois to kick off conference play. Despite a loss to Baylor in a non-conference matchup during Big Ten play to halt the streak, Northwestern went 12-0 in conference play, unanimously taking the regular season championship for the first time since 2009.

Starting with Pollard’s first season as head coach of the program in 1999, the Wildcats ran off an incredible streak of 15 straight years with a Big Ten championship of either the regular season or tournament variety. But over the past three years, Northwestern had been kept away from the hardware by Michigan and Ohio State. This season, the Wildcats flipped that on its head, going through both teams to leave no doubt about their title. First, Northwestern came out of a difficult weekend in Michigan with 4-3 wins over both the Wolverines and the Spartans. Then, to close the regular season, the Wildcats officially clinched their championship with a dominant 4-2 win over the Buckeyes.

After earning the championship for their seniors, Northwestern entered the Big Ten Tournament with a solid amount of momentum, taking down Maryland 4-0 and dismantling Ohio State again, 4-1, to reach the finals. There, however, Michigan took their revenge. At the end of a number of hard-fought singles matches, Chiara Lommer took a three-setter over Northwestern’s Maddie Lipp at #2 to earn a 4-3 win for the Wolverines.

Despite their Big Ten Tournament disappointment, the Wildcats earned the 14th seed for the NCAA Tournament and put their host status to good use, demolishing Buffalo and Kansas State, each by a score of 4-0, to reach the round of 16. But there, they ran into a buzzsaw. The Duke Blue Devils, who have currently dropped just one match all tournament as they await Stanford in the semifinals, jumped on Northwestern early en route to a 4-0 win. The usually dominant Wildcat doubles teams dropped their first doubles point in 16 matches, and it was downhill from there, with each Duke singles player taking the first set. Two Northwestern players forced third sets, but it wasn’t enough to prevent the season-ending loss.

That will do it for the careers of seniors Maddie Lipp, Alex Chatt and Erin Larner. Each have enjoyed huge moments of success this season, finally getting the team where they wanted it to be as senior captains after many highs and lows along the way. For more on Northwestern’s phenomenal outgoing class, take a look at our recent feature, which dives deep into their careers and the connections they forged with each other and the rest of the tight-knit Wildcat squad.

As the Wildcats transition into next year, they’ll need each of their underclassmen to take major strides if they want to fill the gaping holes left by the outgoing class.

Lee Or started the season at the first singles slot thanks to her talent and finesse, but the junior’s inconsistent play caused her to bounce around. Or struggled at times this year, but settled into a bit of a groove down the stretch, finishing the year 11-7 at singles in both the second and third positions. The rising senior has the ability to lead at both singles and doubles on next year’s team, but will need to put things together a bit more consistently across her matches to take the step forward that Coach Pollard will be looking for.

Behind Or will likely be rising junior Julie Byrne. The Oklahoma transfer came on strong down the stretch this year and was rewarded with the second-best singles record on the team: 17-4. The versatile Byrne also held down the fort on the third doubles team, pairing mainly with Rheeya Doshi to go 21-4 from that position. She will be a cornerstone of Northwestern’s squad for the next two years.

The aforementioned Doshi may well make or break Northwestern’s 2019 season. Doshi, a redshirt senior, is the most experienced member of the team, and will likely have to step into an enhanced singles role after playing sparingly in that regard this year. But after the Singapore native was inserted into the singles lineup late this season, her success seems more likely. Despite not seeing the court for singles activity during large swaths of the year, Doshi stepped in and went 4-0, all in the postseason, at #6, before finally losing against Duke. The veteran showed off her potential, and the Wildcats need her to realize it.

Inci Ogut, a rising sophomore from Turkey, played much of the year at #5, experiencing mixed success en route to a 13-8 record. She will almost certainly see the court plenty next season as well.

In addition to Caroline Pozo, Northwestern’s other rising sophomore who barely saw the court this season, the Wildcats will add three freshmen to replace their three outgoing seniors. And if the recruiting rankings are any indication, Northwestern may seem some instant contributions. The three-woman class is ranked ninth in the nation by the Tennis Recruiting Network, featuring Clarissa Hand, Vanessa Streng, and Brit Hannah McColgan. Hand, from New Jersey, is ranked 28th nationally in her class, and Streng is hot on her heels at 39th.

With a successful season and a fitting send off for their three accomplished seniors on the books for 2018, the future remains bright for Northwestern women’s tennis. After dominating Big Ten play and beating two national semifinalists, the Wildcats will bring in the conference’s top recruiting class, looking to continue their success on the court.