NU goes on road to face nation’s top-ranked team

Nina Mandell

Big Ten opponents Purdue and Illinois travel to Evanston this weekend, giving the No. 36 Wildcats (11-4, 2-1 Big Ten) the chance to avenge two of last season’s losses — not to mention the opportunity to snap No. 1 Illinois’ 48-game winning streak.

The Cats will warm up the weekend home stand with No. 75 Purdue at noon on Saturday. Weather permitting, it would be their first home outdoor match of the year. While Purdue (6-7, 1-1) does not pose so strong a threat as Illinois (16-0, 2-0), the Cats are not about to look past the team that defeated them 5-2 last year.

“We’ve had tough matches against Purdue before,” freshman Jamie Friedland said. “I guess we’ll just focus on them first. We always love to get a good win against a Big Ten team.”

After Purdue, the Cats will face Illinois, the highest-ranked team they’ve played this year. Both Northwestern and Illinois finished spring break with decisive wins. But NU’s was over Coastal Carolina, a team with a 1-15 record, while the Illini defeated No. 9 Florida 6-1.

The Cats dismissed their lack of competition over the break. Coach Paul Torricelli said it was more important for the team to get used to playing in the different conditions of an outdoor court, which is where the Cats will play most of the rest of the season.

“We got a lot of balls outside which was good,” Torricelli said. “We trained a lot last week. I thought it was very productive.”

Illinois also played outdoors against Florida, but the outdoor practice may not help either team Sunday. The two will meet indoors unless the weather improves.

NU will have to rely on strong play in both singles and doubles to defeat Illinois, which boasts two ranked singles players: No. 3 Brian Wilson and No. 24 Phil Stolt, who also are the No. 2 doubles team in the nation.

NU hasn’t fared well in the past against Illinois. Last year, when the Illini also were the top-ranked team in the nation, they beat NU 7-0. NU hasn’t beat their instate neighbor since March 1, 1997.

“I think they’re talented, but I think we’re just as good,” Friedland said. “If we play well, then I think we can beat anyone in the country.”

NU players said the Illini’s No. 1 ranking doesn’t mean they’re untouchable. The Cats have already upset ranked teams this season, most notably No. 25 Pepperdine.

With a win over Illinois, NU would improve its Big Ten record to 3-1. While they tried to downplay the fact that it was the No. 1 team and focus on the fact that the match is a Big Ten match, the Cats couldn’t totally ignore what beating the top dog would mean.

“It’s extra motivation to play the No. 1 team,” freshman Willy Lock said. “We just have to put everything on the court and do our best.”