Spring Sports Guide: Men’s Tennis-Freshmen fired up to fill in

Sarah Kuta

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Arvid Swan is used to relying on underclassmen.

Last year then-freshmen Josh Graves, Eric Spector and Tobias Reitz helped the Wildcats earn their first NCAA tournament bid since 2005.

This year with four more newcomers, No. 38 Northwestern is looking to build on last season’s success and advance past the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Sidarth Balaji, Spencer Wolf, Chris Jackman and Mark Schanerman comprise the eighth-ranked recruiting class in the nation, three spots above last year’s group. Though they are young, each of the four freshmen has his own strength.

“The one thing all of the freshmen have is a weapon,” Swan said. “They can hurt you.” With just one senior, Alex Sanborn, and one junior, Andrew McCarthy, on the Cats’ roster, NU will lean heavily on its underclassmen in 2010. Swan holds his newcomers to the same standard as the rest of the team.

“We are young, but that’s not an excuse,” Swan said. “I expect them to contribute in whatever position I put them in. They are going to have to make a significant contribution to our team for us to be successful.”

The ‘freshman four’ have done just that. On Jan. 22 NU upset then-No. 18 Alabama after falling behind 1-3 halfway through singles play. McCarthy collected the clinching win at No. 2 singles to topple the Crimson Tide, but when he was unable to play two weeks later against No. 48 Vanderbilt, Swan looked to Balaji to step up. Though the Cats fell to the Commodores, Balaji used his speed at the net and backcourt play to post a two-set upset over No. 71 Vijay Paul. The win helped Balaji gain a better understanding of what it will take to play at a high level of competition.

“I executed pretty well,” he said. “I played one of the best matches I’ve ever played. It was a really good experience.”

Two days later, with No. 1 singles player Josh Graves injured, Swan plucked Balaji for the top spot against Western Michigan.

“He’s got the talent to play at that level,” Swan said. “We hope that he brings that same level every time.”

At No. 2 singles against Western Michigan, Wolf also demonstrated his ability to step in when needed, knocking out a two-set win over Kazuya Kornada. NU posted a 5-2 victory against the No. 75 Broncos.

“It says a lot about the character of our team,” Swan said. “If people go down, we have people who can step up. It was a critical win.”

For Wolf, being able to contribute to his team’s success as a freshman was a necessary self-esteem boost, one that he hopes will carry over into future matches.

“My confidence skyrocketed,” Wolf said. “We want to build momentum throughout the season and capitalize on it, especially during matches.”

Balaji said he wants that momentum to carry the Cats all the way to the postseason. Last year Swan led NU to its first NCAA tournament since 2005, though the Cats fell to Wake Forest in the first round. Balaji and the rest of the freshmen have high expectations for this season.

“We could win a match in the NCAA tournament,” Balaji said. “Those are our expectations. They’re definitely reachable.”

With seven underclassmen, Swan knows this season will be a challenging one. But Swan is hoping proactive play from NU’s four rookies can make up for their youth.

“They can win points rather than waiting for someone to miss,” Swan said. “What they lack in experience they make up for in talent.”sarahkuta2012@u.northwestern.edu