Quest for 6th straight conference title begins

Nick Halpern

Last season, the Northwestern women’s team won their fifth straight Big Ten championship following a second-place regular season finish.

But that wasn’t good enough for the Wildcats.

“It was definitely really annoying not winning the regular season last year,” senior Jessica Rush said. “It’s one of our goals for this year.”

NU begins its quest to improve upon its 8-2 conference record from a year ago tonight against No. 70 Wisconsin (6-6). Historically, the No. 7 Cats have owned the Badgers, winning 35 of their 50 matches, including a 4-3 victory last season.

Although the Cats (8-3) won the Big Ten championships in 2003 by defeating Minnesota in the final round, the Golden Gophers finished with a better conference record.

“I wasn’t really disappointed, but I wasn’t pleased,” NU coach Claire Pollard said.

Pollard, whose team didn’t finish on top of the Big Ten standings for the first time in her six seasons at NU, has made a point this season to focus on preparing for each match the same way.

“We need to be confident without being overconfident,” the coach said. “We have to make sure that we’re as excited for this portion of the season as the stretch where every team was this thrilling opportunity.”

Senior Ruth Barnes knows that NU is a team that other squads get excited to play, but she says that the Cats will be ready.

“We need to recognize that we are a target team for everyone to beat so we have to be incredibly focused for every match,” Barnes said. “But that’s not too difficult because the Big Ten is something we really focus on as a team anyway.”

But this match-to-match approach doesn’t prevent Barnes from having lofty expectations — she said NU hopes to finish the season undefeated.

The match against the Badgers is the Cats’ last contest until they take on DePaul on March 23. This allows the team time to focus on things that may go overlooked when matches are so frequent.

“We’re going to try to get back in shape,” Pollard said. “We definitely lose a bit of conditioning during the matches we played, which seems a little ironic. You get tennis fit but you lose a little general fit.”

Barnes is looking forward to the other benefits of the gap between matches.

“It’ll be nice to get some schoolwork done,” Barnes said.

Wisconsin has played a difficult schedule, meeting six of the top 32 teams in the nation, but are winless in those six contests.

The Badgers’ top player, No. 52 sophomore Katie McGaffigan, has pulled off some upsets this season to join her older sister, Illinois’ No. 14 senior Jennifer McGaffigan, in the national rankings. Earlier this week, the younger McGaffigan defeated Houston’s No. 80 Biljana Dimovska. McGaffigan also teams with Lindsay Martin to form the Badgers’ top doubles team.

Wisconsin enters the contest with a five-match losing streak to NU, but Pollard says that could serve as extra motivation for the Badgers.

“Wisconsin is tired of losing to us.”