The joy of six (women’s tennis)

Nick Halpern

Every year is different for the Northwestern women’s tennis team. One year the team is led by players who spent the previous night hooked up to IVs. Then a freshman emerges as one of the nation’s best players. This year a sophomore toughs out an injury to earn a key victory.

But for six years, each season has ended the same way: a Big Ten tournament title.

The No. 11 Wildcats clinched the championship on Sunday with a 4-0 sweep of Ohio State. NU seized the momentum with a dominant doubles performance and led in every singles match before senior Jessica Rush clinched it.

The most compelling match of the day was freshman Alexis Prousis’ victory at third singles. After Prousis called one of Jackie Leskovar’s shots out, Leskovar became furious and the opponents began screaming at each other.

“Her fans in the stands got in my face and then she did, and I just blew up,” Prousis said. “She was really obnoxious about it, so I got obnoxious about it.”

Although Prousis wasn’t a member of the team last year when the Buckeyes were one of only two Big Ten teams to hand the Cats a loss, the Buckeyes drew the team’s ire on Saturday when they cheered against NU in the Cats’ semifinal matchup with Michigan.

Redemption wasn’t the only drama the Cats enjoyed during the championship. The fourth-seeded Wolverines gave NU a scare for the second straight weekend.

One week after sophomore Jamie Peisel won the deciding match for the Cats against the No. 27 Wolverines the squads were again locked in a tight match in the semifinals on Saturday. With the Cats holding a narrow 3-2 lead and senior Andrea Yung a game away from defeat, the Cats’ fate again lay in Peisel’s hands. After splitting the first two sets, Peisel led 5-2 in the third stanza. Her opponent, Chrissie Nolan, fought off five match points to even the score, and it looked like the momentum had shifted to Nolan.

Peisel rallied to win the next game and take a 6-5 lead, but pulled up with a cramp at the start of the next game. Peisel was forced to continue her match for the Cats to have a chance a victory. Despite playing in discomfort, she was able to pull through a gutsy win.

“I was upset that I didn’t finish it at 5-3 and I refused to lose,” Peisel said. “I’ve played in a lot of 4-3s, so I felt confident — I knew I could do it.”

NU clinched the doubles point by winning two of three matches, but the teams split four two-set singles matches that put the score at 3-2.

After a first-round bye the day before, NU took on Purdue on Friday morning. Although the Cats emerged with a 4-1 victory, the outcome was far from assured. For the first time this season, Grier was forced to play three sets but was able to come back and clinch the match for the Cats. She said she relaxed in the final two sets after seeing how hard her teammates were playing.

Despite their difficulty against the ninth seed in the tournament, Pollard was pleased with her team’s performance.

“It’s not that easy — everyone’s expecting us to win and there are a lot of expectations out there,” Pollard said. “I think we were really resilient when a lesser team would have succumbed to the pressure.”

It was appropriate that Rush clinched the championship match in her final conference tournament. She began her career at sixth singles and gradually climbed up the lineup. Now she is ranked No. 47 in the nation.

“I can’t say enough good things about (Rush),” Pollard said. “She’s the kind of player every coach dreams about because she’s willing to do whatever it takes to get better.”

The Cats will find out their seed in the NCAA tournament

Since Pollard came to NU six years ago, her squad has won every Big Ten tournament. But the coach maintains that winning doesn’t get old.

“I think it gets bigger every year,” Pollard said. “It’s so much fun. Look at the atmosphere here — how could you not enjoy this?”