Victory is sweet for Cats

Amalie Benjamin

They’re going to Georgia.

The No. 7 Northwestern women’s tennis team reached the Sweet 16 for the second straight year this weekend, beating Illinois-Chicago 4-0 and Kentucky 4-1.

“We had the pressure of the crowd,” senior Shannon Duffy said. “Everyone was pushed to their limit. It can only help because (in Georgia) we are going to have hundreds cheering against us.

“It made everyone out here better tennis players.”

NU moves on to meet Southern California in the third round at Georgia State, where the tournament picks up again on Thursday.

After dropping the doubles point to start the match against Kentucky, Evanston’s Wildcats (22-4) came back to take the next four singles points for the victory.

“We’re used to losing the doubles point,” NU coach Claire Pollard said. “But we love tight situations, tight matches.”

With No. 1 doubles going to Kentucky and No. 3 to NU, the pressure fell on the No. 2 team of Lia Jackson and Jessica Rush.

The pair battled back from an early 6-1 deficit to come as close as 7-4 before losing 8-4 to Kentucky’s 29th-ranked tandem of Carolina Mayorga and Sarah Witten.

“We started off slowly,” Rush said. “We kept losing games by a point. In the end it was just too big of a deficit.”

Instead of being on the court for doubles play, Duffy was forced to watch. Pollard opted to preserve the senior’s energy for singles competition.

“It’s frustrating being on the sidelines,” Duffy said. “I was just getting antsy, so I had to go hit. But you can see how hard this team works when you are off the court.”

Duffy said she supported Pollard’s decision to remove her from the No. 3 doubles team in favor of freshman Ruth Barnes.

Because the lineup cannot be changed after it is submitted, Duffy will not be playing doubles for the rest of the tournament.

“It was tough to take because I didn’t understand it at first,” Duffy said. “But doubles takes a lot out of me because I am such an emotional player – I just need to get my singles point.”

At No. 1 singles, senior Colleen Cheng – ranked No. 39 nationally – evened the score quickly for the Cats, downing No. 40 Mayorga 6-1, 6-2 more than an hour before any other singles match finished.

Duffy, at No. 4, was the next to record a victory for NU, beating Leigh Bradwell 7-5, 6-4. Duffy came back from a 4-1 deficit in the first set.

“I’m giving (Bradwell) a lot of credit,” Duffy said. “She came out with her best serve. I looked around and saw my teammates and they were all up. I didn’t want to be the only one to lose – not at my last match on these courts. So I turned it up.”

The other four matches all went to the third set before Simona Petrutiu and Rush won at Nos. 5 and 6, respectively.

Petrutiu upended Lauren Rookledge 6-1, 3-6, 6-2, while Rush clinched NU’s victory with her 6-0, 3-6, 6-2 win over Shannon Stafford.

“With everyone watching, I just wanted to play well,” Rush said. “It takes away the nerves.”

Saturday’s match against Illinois-Chicago was an entirely different story – an easy victory for the Cats.

NU took the doubles point and then three straight singles matches to clinch the 4-0 victory in just under two hours, yet Pollard said she was not completely satisfied.

“We hadn’t played in two weeks,” Pollard said. “It’s a sport you need to compete in. We knew we were going to win so our concentration wasn’t where it should have been.”

Petrutiu clinched that match with a 6-4, 6-0 victory over Alyson Stalzer.

The next step for the Cats comes when they travel to Georgia to play Southern California.

NU already beat the No. 10 Trojans earlier this season – a 5-2 victory Feb. 17.

“We know their six spots and their doubles, which helps in the preparation,” Duffy said. “We’re not going to be cocky, but it’s a winnable match. They’re going to be scared because they know that we’re an emotional team.”

Meanwhile, Pollard’s theory for the rest of the tournament and the trip down South is simple.

“We’re not going there to compete – we’re going there to win,” she said. “We’re confident, but we deserve to be confident because we just beat a very good Kentucky team.”