Illinois upsets No. 7 Cats

Nick Halpern

A third undefeated Big Ten season in four years was bound to be difficult for the Northwestern women’s tennis team.

But the Wildcats run at perfection wasn’t supposed to end on their first road trip. Coming off their sixth straight victory, the No. 7 Cats (13-4, 3-1 Big Ten) suffered their first conference loss of the season at the hands of No. 24 Illinois (13-3, 4-1) on Sunday in Champaign, Ill.

“It was the most disappointing loss (of the season),” head coach Claire Pollard said. “I have to give them credit — they played very well.”

The Cats got off to a slow start and lost the doubles point. NU’s top two tandems lost to the Illini, including the No. 2 team of sophomore Cristelle Grier and senior Jessica Rush. No. 9 Jennifer McGaffigan and Cynthya Goulet took down the NU duo 8-3 — Grier and Rush’s third and most lopsided defeat of the season.

“Any loss in that situation is going to be disheartening,” Grier said. “But give credit to them — they played a good doubles.”

In singles action, No. 3 Grier got revenge against No. 34 McGaffigan, dropping only four games in a straight-set victory. The win was Grier’s eighth straight singles victory since she lost the first dual match of her career Feb. 21 against Duke. Junior Andrea Yung added a commanding victory against Brianna Knue to win her second straight match since being reinserted into the singles lineup.

The Cats got their third point when sophomore Jamie Peisel chipped in her sixth straight victory at the fourth singles spot with a 7-6 (7-1), 7-6 (8-6) win over Isabel Jarosz.

Freshman Alexis Prousis, winner of 12 of her last 13 matches entering the day, lost in three sets after rallying to force the third stanza.

NU didn’t get another win, allowing Illinois to beat NU for the first time since April 1, 2000.

“It is incredibly disappointing,” senior Ruth Barnes said. “We have a strong rivalry (with Illinois). It’s not a fun match to lose.”

Despite her disappointment, Grier said the Cats will emphasize the positives of the match.

“If you took the bad stuff out of the loss, you’d be down in the dumps,” Grier said.

While Pollard refuted the notion of a “good loss,” she acknowledged that the Cats, losers of only two points in their past five matches, need some experience for future close matches.

“We haven’t had a lot of really tough, tight matches,” Pollard said. “It hurt us today when it was tight. I think we need some tight matches down the stretch.”

Before falling to Illinois, NU opened the weekend with a 7-0 sweep of No. 52 Purdue (7-9, 2-3) in West Lafayette, Ind., on Saturday. Windy conditions provided more of a challenge for the Cats than the Boilermakers did.

Purdue continued its struggles against top teams, falling to 3-8 against ranked opponents.

The Cats’ loss Sunday against Illinois was their first defeat since Feb. 22.

“The fact that we’re disappointed doesn’t make us lose confidence,” Barnes said. “It makes us want to work harder.”

Pollard, the coach of the five-time conference champions, remains confident.

“They got us this time,” Pollard said. “But next time we’ll be ready — I guarantee it.”