In Y2K, competition not enough to bug Cats

Robert Eccles

Back in September, the only thing that stood in the way of the Northwestern women’s tennis team was Y2K and the end of the world.

But Y2K passed and the world remained, so the No. 14 Wildcats (24-5) took care of some unfinished business.

In coach Claire Pollard’s first season a year ago, the Cats won the Big Ten title, were ranked as high as No. 20 in the nation and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament.

So NU entered this year trying to defend its conference title, improve its national ranking and advance to the Sweet 16 of the NCAAs in Malibu, Calif.

“We were planning on winning the Big Ten title and making it to the Sweet 16 regardless if it was the year 2000 or 3000,” junior Colleen Cheng said.

NU went 5-3 against top-20 teams and maintained a national ranking in the top 20 throughout the year, peaking at No. 10.

The Cats were 8-0 in the Big Ten with their starting lineup intact, but suffered two losses when freshman Marine Piriou was sidelined with mononucleosis. Her absence put NU in third place after the regular season.

But when the Big Ten tournament began, the Cats were healthy and ready.

They destroyed Indiana and Illinois to reach the finals against Minnesota. In the finals, NU relied on stellar performances in singles from Piriou, sophomore Lia Jackson and Cheng, while senior Jennifer Lutgert won in heroic fashion to clinch the 4-3 victory and the Cats’ second consecutive Big Ten title.

“We were challenged in the finals as it could have gone either way,” Cheng said. “Jen did a huge job of coming up big when we needed it.”

But NU wanted more and set its sights on two wins in the NCAAs that would guarantee a trip to Malibu.

The Cats removed any suspense from the crucial weekend by posting consecutive shutouts of 5-0 against Oral Roberts and Tulsa in the NCAA regionals. Next, the team traveled to Malibu for the remainder of the tournament but the 16th-seeded Cats lost 5-1 to top-ranked and eventual runner-up Stanford in the Sweet 16.

“It was a great ending to our year,” junior Shannon Duffy said. “(Reaching the Sweet 16) was our major goal and we achieved it. We wanted to prove to ourselves that we belonged there and we did.”

To accomplish all of the team success, individual players recorded impressive records. Going into the season, Duffy owned the school record for most wins in a single season with 31.

But this year, Jackson was the first to break the record and totaled 38 wins. Piriou compiled 33, Cheng 32 and senior Katherine Nasser 31. Duffy and Lutgert each had more than 20 wins, making it the first year in the Cats’ history that all six singles players finished with more than 20 wins.

“It is nice that each one of us had a successful season,” Duffy said. “Everyone contributed and we all earned the rings and trophies.”

But NU will not remain intact as seniors Nasser, Lutgert and Leigh Weinraub graduate, which will mean more responsibility for the returning members and the three incoming freshmen and a junior college transfer.

“It’s going to be hard to see them leave, but it will mean a new look,” Cheng said.

Added Duffy, “We are losing a lot but with the four new players, we’ll fill those roles well.”

The No. 1 singles spot will be up for grabs in an intense open competition among Duffy, Cheng, Jackson and Piriou, but the players will not let the minor rivalry play a major role and destroy team chemistry or overall success for next year.

“It is a great aspect, the healthy competitiveness among the team,” Duffy said. “But once the lineup is set, then that’ll be it. Anyone can play anywhere on this team.”

The newcomers will join four experienced and successful players in Duffy, Cheng, Jackson and Piriou. NU hopes to mesh the veterans with the rookies and repeat as Big Ten champions, maintain a top-10 ranking and advance further in the tournament.

“Our expectations are going to be higher and higher and it will only be a disappointment if we don’t get better,” Cheng said. “This year was a step in the right direction to where we want to be.”