Wildcats hope to exact revenge on Blue Devils in Sweet 16

Nick Halpern

For the second time this season, the Northwestern women’s tennis team will travel to the South to take on Duke.

This time — in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Championships — the Wildcats are hoping for a different result.

“They beat us the first time, so hopefully it will be a story of revenge,” sophomore Cristelle Grier said.

The Cats suffered their most lopsided loss of this season to the Blue Devils on Feb. 21, but NU coach Claire Pollard says that this time around the match will bear little resemblance to the first meeting.

“I think both teams are playing better,” Pollard said. “Our lineup is different than when we played them. I don’t think there will be more than one or two individual rematches.”

The first time the teams played in Durham, N.C., Duke routed NU 5-2.

“(Duke) has always been a really strong team, and we always get up for them,” junior Andrea Yung said before the first meeting. “They have a lot of really high-ranked players, but we just want to go out there and play our best.”

The Cats won the doubles point, but freshman Alexis Prousis was the only player to manage a win in singles. No. 3 Grier suffered the only loss of her dual match career to No. 8 Amanda Johnson.

“She’s a very good player,” Grier said. “I’ll do everything in my power to beat her.”

Last weekend, the seventh-seeded Blue Devils routed William and Mary, 4-0, to advance to the Sweet 16 for the 14th straight year.

Under Pollard, the Cats have reached the Sweet 16 three times but have yet to advance to the Elite Eight.

“(Advancing) would be big, but I don’t think it’s going to make or break the program,” Pollard said. “A national ranking is the biggest selling point.”

The Cats were poised to make the Sweet 16 for the fourth straight year last season, but NU suffered a set back when the NCAA ruled Grier and Ruth Barnes ineligible .

This might be the best chance the team has had to advance to the quarterfinals since Pollard became coach six years ago.

“We have the same team as last year, and we added the power of Prousis,” Grier said. “Plus we’ve grown together over the last two years.”

While NU still isn’t ranked in the top five nationally, the team continues to improve its seeding. In two of Pollard’s three previous seasons in the Sweet 16, her team played No. 1 seeds Florida and Stanford. In 2001, the Cats were seeded seventh, but were upset by 10th seed Southern California.

NU is the only Big Ten team in this year’s Sweet 16. In comparison, there are five teams from the Pacific 10. Last season, with NU ravaged by the NCAA ruling, Illinois was the only team to make a trip to the Sweet 16 in Gainsville, Fla.

“We’re proud to be representing the Big Ten, but all we can do is our very best,” Pollard said. “(The Big Ten) has represented ourselves well this year, but there were some bad draws for teams I thought were playing well.”

Following NU’s loss to Duke in February, Pollard was able to find silver lining in the loss.

“In the past they expected to beat us, but this year, they were excited to beat us,” Pollard said. “I think that says a lot for our program.”

If NU defeats the Blue Devils, the Cats will likely advance to play No. 2 Stanford — the top seed remaining in the tournament. The Cardinal feature Alice Barnes, the sister of NU senior Ruth Barnes. It’s not likely that the two will meet in a singles match.

Another compelling matchup would pit 2003 singles champion Amber Liu against Grier — but Grier said she isn’t thinking that far ahead yet.

“It’s always in the back of my head, but both teams have to get there first,” Grier said.

Despite the previous loss, the Cats aren’t intimidated by the Blue Devils and relish the opportunity to play them again.

“The first time we played it was very close,” Rush said. “I think we can turn around some of those matches.

“I’m ready to play. I wish we were playing (today).”