Wildcats ‘disgusted’ with NCAA tourney snub

Ryan M. Daniels

It wasn’t supposed to end like this.

Senior captain Brad Erickson expected to play his last college tennis match in the NCAA tournament, but that won’t happen.

The Northwestern men’s tennis team sat in a conference room at Welsh-Ryan Arena and watched an Internet broadcast in shock as the squad was left out of the NCAA championships, despite making it to the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament.

“The hardest thing for me is that this is the last time I will ever play competitively in my life and I didn’t know it was coming,” Erickson said.

Erickson wasn’t the only one taken aback by the snub.

“I think we clearly deserved to qualify,” coach Paul Torricelli said. “I have to have it explained to me. If I had to put (it) in one word, it would be ‘disgusted.'”

The Wildcats (13-9, 7-5 Big Ten) appeared tournament bound after faring well in the conference tournament to cap off a strong season. Last year NU grabbed the last spot available with an inferior 11-11 record and a weaker showing at Big Tens.

Sophomore Josh Axler arrived just after his teammates had heard the news.

“I walked in late,” he said, “and coach told me we didn’t make it and I said, ‘Are you kidding?'”

The real surprise for the Cats came when they looked at the bracket and saw conference rivals Michigan (12-9, 6-5) and Minnesota (12-11, 7-5) in it. NU beat both teams during the regular season and also finished with a better overall winning percentage.

“It’s as if (the NCAA) considered some factors that we weren’t told about,” Erickson said.

The selection committee uses various criteria, including head-to-head results, late-season results and strength of schedule.

The Cats finished the season 5-2 down the stretch and suffered eight of their nine losses to tournament-bound teams. Torricelli went through the list of criteria with his players after the decision, still believing they had gotten the job done.

Thursday’s scene starkly contrasted last year’s, when the Cats heard of their fate in the first matchup announced as No. 1 seed Stanford’s opponent. This year NU waited through 32 matchups before realizing their fate.

“We kept waiting,” Erickson said, “and all of a sudden when they finished, we said, ‘Wait, they didn’t call us.'”

Thirty different conference winners were granted a free pass to the NCAAs, many of which would have been left out of the tournament based on the selection standards.

This system leaves teams like NU that would normally qualify on the outside looking in.

“Some teams get left out with automatic qualifiers,” Torricelli said. “When you’re one of the teams that gets squeezed out, it’s very disappointing.”

Torricelli said he supports the opportunity that automatic bids provide to small schools to boost their programs.

The Cats had to step aside for smaller schools this year, but will return everyone to their roster except Erickson next season.

The captain leaves the team with two consecutive All-Big Ten honors under his belt.

“It’s a funny way to end my career,” Erickson said. “We never really considered not getting in.”

Torricelli said he hopes to get an explanation from the committee clarifying why the Cats’ season is over.

“It’s funny,” Erickson said. “With one little Internet broadcast, it’s all over.”

Erickson’s teammates left a strong season to build on – and have plenty of motivation for 2002.

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to prove that this year was a joke with us not going to the tournament,” Axler said.