March sadness (MEN’S TENNIS)

Tania Ganguli

The first time the Northwestern men’s tennis team lost to Indiana this season on Feb. 15, it was a bonding experience.

“You’re not really a team until you have been through a really tough loss,” coach Paul Torricelli said after the 4-3 defeat.

The Wildcats’ winless March was “character-building,” and they said they wouldn’t stay down for long. But after a while, saying it just wasn’t enough.

Before the season the Cats and Torricelli had two goals: finish in the top four of the Big Ten and get an NCAA bid. They started the season strong, cruising by Northern Illinois and Denver. The first time NU was really tested, it passed with an upset win over No. 36 Arkansas on Jan. 26.

“Anyone that was down in Arkansas watching the match would realize it wasn’t a fluke,” senior captain Russell Bennett said. “It was an upset on paper, but we were the better team.”

The win boosted the Cats’ confidence and made them think they could beat then-No. 16 Alabama. They didn’t, but kept the match close against a team ranked about 30 spots higher.

But the mid-February loss to Indiana didn’t discourage the Cats.

It angered them.

“When you look on your schedule and see a loss like that, that’s not even really a loss,” freshman Adam Schaechterle said. “It’s just embarrassing.”

The Cats couldn’t believe it happened, so they took out their anger on DePaul. En route to destroying the Blue Demons, Schaechterle, the Cats’ newest member, finally felt comfortable with his game.

The win propelled three more individual victories for Schaechterle, including the deciding point against Notre Dame.

NU managed one last win, a 6-1 decision over Ball State on Feb. 28, before the March disaster started.

As the Big Ten season got into full swing, the Cats lost five consecutive matches, starting with Purdue on March 7. Illinois, the nation’s No. 1 team, defeated NU 7-0 the next day, and the Cats’ slide continued with non-conference losses to Clemson, Rice and Louisiana-Lafayette during Spring Break.

“After that we started to doubt ourselves,” Schaechterle said. “It made us vulnerable.”

Compounding their loss of confidence, the Cats’ quest to get back on track was hampered by injuries to their No. 1 player.

Sophomore Tommy Hanus’ decline started during Spring Break, and by the end of the season he was almost completely ineffective — he called himself a “spot filler.” Hanus struggled with a shoulder injury that got progressively worse as the season wore on. He won only one of his last nine matches of the season — when his opponent collapsed on the court mid-match due to an injury .

NU snapped its losing streak with a pair of wins over Iowa and Penn State in April. If the Cats had performed well in their final Big Ten matches against the Michigan schools, a respectable Big Ten seeding wouldn’t have been out of reach. But NU lost to both the Spartans and the Wolverines in 4-3 decisions to close out the conference season.

Although the Cats were in a four-way tie for sixth place after the regular season, they received the No. 9 seed in the Big Ten championships. NU’s first-round matchup against Indiana gave the Cats a chance to avenge their embarrassing regular-season loss. Despite the advantage of hosting the tournament, the Cats lost to the Hoosiers 4-1 and were eliminated.

All season long NU was a team on the brink of success, but it never managed to have all aspects of its game in place at once. The doubles team of sophomore Chuck Perrin and senior Jackie Jenkins was ranked as high as No. 10 in the nation, but then proceeded to lose four straight. The skid encouraged Torricelli to revamp his lineup.

But nothing Torricelli did changed the Cats’ direction. As they got deeper into spring, NU was unable to adjust to the outdoor matches after playing indoors earlier in the season. And Hanus’ injury put a huge hole at the top of the lineup.

All season NU was a team with the potential to be great, but the season ended with the Cats still waiting to peak.