Young Cats set to begin Big Ten season after a pair of wins out West

Spring Break provided a week away from school and a trip to sunny California for the Northwestern men’s tennis team. For sophomores Joost Hol and Jamie Sahara, it was a chance to go home, put down their rackets and grab their surfboards for a few days.

After a short hiatus from the courts and the classroom, NU’s No. 2 and No. 6 singles players went a combined 6-0 in three matches to help the Wildcats post a 2-1 mark on their West Coast road trip.

The Cats (6-7, 0-3 Big Ten) have returned home to prepare for seven consecutive Big Ten matches beginning Saturday that will determine whether or not they live to see the postseason.

NU’s first three outdoor matches of the year were also its first competition in nearly a month. The Cats knocked off Dartmouth 5-2 and dismantled Colorado 6-1, but stumbled in a 5-2 loss to San Diego.

Hol dropped only one set during the trip, and that was when he moved up to play No. 1 singles against the Buffaloes. Sahara didn’t lose more than three games in a set all week.

“Joost really stepped it up,” coach Paul Torricelli said. “Everyone played harder than they ever have all year. Overall, the trip was successful. Our only loss was to a team on their home courts and it’s tough to beat California teams (at home).”

Now that school is back in session, the Cats will open up a four-game homestand beginning Saturday against Michigan State (5-12, 0-1). On Sunday, NU faces No. 18 Michigan (7-2, 0-1).

Now is when things start to get interesting for the Cats, who are resting gingerly on the bubble.

This situation is nothing new for NU. A victory over No. 2 seed Michigan in the Big Ten tournament last year most likely propelled the Cats into the NCAA tournament. A win Sunday against Wolverines could have similar results.

“The Michigan match may be of greater importance,” junior Brad Erickson said. “We need to try and squeak a match or two out that we aren’t expected to win.”

In addition, like last year, NU has been playing this season shorthanded. Junior Derrick Nguyen, who was expected to play the Cats’ No. 1 singles spot this season, called Torricelli in August to say he wouldn’t return to the team or to school. As a result, NU has been playing freshmen at three of the bottom four singles slots.

Last year the Cats were forced to play their stretch run without No. 1 singles star Marc Silva.

So NU begins the bulk of its Big Ten season staring down the barrel of the gun. The Cats will be counting on the same things that kept them together last year — cohesiveness and a veteran coach — that much hasn’t changed.

What has changed is the presence of senior leadership. Besides Erickson, NU has only freshmen and sophomores in its lineup. And because his team is so young, Torricelli decided to forego naming a captain.

“Being a captain is something you have to earn,” Torricelli said. “Everyone has to pull his own weight (this year).”

Even though there is not a designated team leader, Torricelli has again put together a team that gets along well and is willing to work for him. Hol admits he was “not sure what to expect this year.”

But as was the case last year, Torricelli’s players are overachieving. Hol and his teammates hope they can finish the season strong and ride that wave into the field of 64.

“The next five weeks will make or break our season,” Hol said. “We’re putting all we can into it.”