Cats maintain NCAA tournament hopes, despite loss to Illini

Nina Mandell

After a roller coaster of a match, the No. 46 Northwestern men’s tennis team was relieved to get off the court Friday as decisive winners in the first round of the Big Ten tournament in East Lansing, Mich.

“It was such an emotional match with a lot of ups and downs,” said Chuck Perrin of NU’s 4-1 victory over Purdue. “It was just good to finally get off the court winners.”

But the relief was short-lived, as the Wildcats were swept out of the tournament Saturday by Illinois, the nation’s top-ranked squad.

Although the defeat may seem humiliating on paper, the Cats held their heads high and now are anxiously awaiting to see if they get an NCAA tournament bid. NU did its best to campaign to the selection committee with its convincing victory over the Boilermakers.

Against Purdue, NU played one of its closest doubles points of the season. Adam Schaechterle and Matt Christian lost at the No. 3 spot, Tommy Hanus and Christian Tempke turned it around to tie the point at 1-1 and put the pressure on the No. 1 spot.

Justin Hoeveler and Perrin battled point-for-point with Troy Havens and David Robinson, whom the Cats duo defeated earlier this season, to come out on top, 9-8.

“During the tiebreaker, Chuck smoked this return for the match point,” Hoeveler said. “It was a pretty amazing shot. Finishing that way was kind of emotional.”

But the emotional finish in the doubles point wasn’t enough to get the Cats off to a strong start in singles. Willy Lock won his match, but the Cats fell behind in four singles matches before Mother Nature kicked in and gave them a chance to regroup.

Pouring rain caused a 35-minute delay and forced officials to move the matches indoors. NU players said they used the delay to motivate each other and get their mental focus back in hopes of turning around their floundering singles sets.

It worked.

Something clicked for Tempke, who came back from losing the first set of his match, 3-6, and being down 3-0 in the third set, to capture the second singles point for NU.

Just two courts away, Schaechterle was one point away from winning his match, but Perrin won the race to clinch the match for the Cats and take the team to the semi-finals.

Friday’s win marked the first time NU has reached the semi-finals since 2001.

“I thought it was probably one of our best matches of the year,”Hoeveler said.

But Illinois was not ready to let the Cats get in the way of their Big Ten hat trick.

After being swept by the defending national champions earlier in the season, the Cats knew they weren’t expected to beat the Fighting Illini. But that didn’t help temper the sting of an early exit, as NU fell 4-0.

“You always see a minimum chance to win,” Tempke said. “Everyone was a bit disappointed.”

Illinois, which went on to win the tournament, finished off the Cats without losing a set. Tempke said playing on the quick courts at Michigan State gave his opponent an added advantage because it made the Illini’s powerful serves and good volleys even tougher to handle.

But Perrin said the match, while frustrating, wasn’t as bad as the score sounds.

“A couple of matches started to swing our way when the match was clinched,” he said.

The players said although the loss to Illinois wasn’t an ideal end to the season, beating Purdue was enough to give them hopes of an NCAA berth.

The Cats last traveled to the Big Dance in 2002, when they were 6-4 in conference play and 13-10 overall. That was good enough for a fourth place regular-season finish, which also is where NU finished this season. And by making it past the Boilermakers this past weekend, the Cats also secured a fourth-place tournament finish.

“I think we accomplished as much as we could (this weekend),” Torricelli said. “I think we belong in the tournament without question.”