Claire Pollard has coached Northwestern women’s tennis since 1999. With the exception of 2020, when the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to COVID-19, her team has qualified for the Big Dance every single season — 23 straight springs. That streak came to an end this May.
Northwestern finished 12-13, quietly bowing out of the Big Ten Tournament to No. 21 Wisconsin by a score of 4-0. However, the record doesn’t tell the full story. A mind-boggling nine of those 25 games came against top-30 teams, whom the ‘Cats went 0-9 against. NU dealt with one of the more difficult non-conference schedules in recent memory, as it endured a stretch in which it had to face seven top-75 squads in a row. It lost six of those matches, and it failed to even pick up a single team point in three consecutive losses to No. 10 Duke, No. 7 Ohio State and No. 5 Michigan.
Exacerbating a 4-5 start, the brutal March stretch dug the ‘Cats into a hole that was almost insurmountable. Northwestern played excellently down the stretch, winning all seven of its matches against teams other than the Badgers to finish fifth in the Big Ten but just couldn’t secure upsets. Ultimately, that’s what put NU out of contention for individual and team postseason play, given how difficult its slate was.
It’s possible that the team’s youth played a factor there. Four of the team’s eight players — Sydney Pratt, Kiley Rabjohns, Justine Leong and Jennifer Riester — are either first or second-years. Coming into the season, it seemed like Northwestern would heavily rely on senior Christina Hand, who came into the season as the ITA’s No. 57 individual. While she thrived in doubles with Leong, going 11-1 as the No. 56 tandem in the nation, Hand often bore the brunt of NU’s tough schedule individually. She faced four ranked players, more than anyone else on the team except her top doubles partner.
It’s difficult to determine whether it was the Wildcats’ lack of depth or their tough schedule — or maybe some combination of both — that did them in. Regardless of which it is, it doesn’t help that Northwestern is set to lose Hand to graduation. However, Pollard instantly responded by adding two grad transfers in Brown’s Britany Lau and William & Mary’s Elisa Van Meeteren. Both have significant NCAA Tournament experience, which should definitely help the 2024 squad.
Ultimately, though, it will be up to the rising upperclassmen to right the ship. Including Lau and Van Meeteren, Northwestern is expected to have six. All of them, especially rising senior and All-Big Ten honoree Maria Shusharina, will possess significant NCAA Tournament experience. The ‘Cats were solid in doubles against the Big Ten’s best, but they’ll have to each hold their own individually to rack up a few wins over higher-ranked teams, even if there aren’t as many on the 2024 schedule.
This season’s result is somewhat discouraging given Northwestern made it to the NCAA Tournament in 2022 and retained over half of its team. But it doesn’t mean the ‘Cats will need a massive reset, as the same core will have the chance to make its mark once more.