Men’s Soccer: Northwestern draws Western Illinois in seventh NCAA Tournament appearance

Ava Wallace, Online Sports Editor

Northwestern acted cautiously Monday night.

Coach Tim Lenahan said the team usually throws a party to watch the NCAA Tournament selection show, during which the players learn their seed in the Tournament and celebrate with friends and food.

But this year, the Cats ended their Big Ten Tournament run Friday with a 3-0 loss to Michigan. The team’s regular season ended with two ties against conference teams and two losses, to Penn State and Northern Illinois. 

So this year, Monday evening’s selection show gathering was different.

“If it was disappointment, we wanted it to be just us,” Lenahan said.

But NU (11-5-4) was anything but disappointed.

The Cats will face Western Illinois at Lakeside Field on Thursday night for their first-round tournament match, the team’s seventh tournament appearance in program history.

After falling 3-0 to Michigan in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament on Friday, NU was on shaky ground for a tournament bid, with an RPI of 41. Nonetheless, Lenahan was pleased the selection committee considered the Cats’ numerous impressive successes this season.

“We played and beat good teams,” Lenahan said. “I’m glad the committee really looks at those good wins, especially the win we had over No. 1 seed Notre Dame. We had four really good wins over top-30 teams, and we’re probably one of five teams to have done that this season.”

The team’s recognition comes after more good news from last Thursday. Four players – senior defender Chris Ritter, sophomore goalkeeper Tyler Miller, sophomore defender Nikko Boxall and freshman forward Joey Calistri – were named to the First Team All-Big Ten. The four set a school record as most players awarded First Team All-Big Ten honors in one year.

Ritter was also named the 2012 Big Ten Defensive player of the year and Calistri was unanimously named the 2012 Big Ten Freshman of the Year.

But individual accolades aside, Miller said the team was relieved to get a bid Monday night.

“It definitely showed that our hard work throughout the years has paid off,” Miller said. “And it just goes to show that we have to play through the end of the season.”

Despite a sluggish showing against Michigan on Friday, both Miller and Lenahan agree – NU is going to focus on fine-tuning, not making big changes, heading into the Tournament.

“We are who we are,” Lenahan said. ” Who we are is good enough to beat Michigan, Michigan State and Notre Dame.  We just have to be better… than we were last Wednesday.”

Western Illinois – the team NU played in the first round of their first-ever Tourament in 2004, won its second straight Summit League Championship, the program’s sixth, on Sunday. Miller said the Cats are going to have to match Western Illinois’s energy after its championship win, but NU is just going to “play its game.”

The sophomore also mentioned the Cats will be playing with the seniors in mind Thursday. Lenahan said he is proud of his seniors, who helped shape a season to remember.

“They got a Big Ten Championship with a Tournament bid,” Lenahan said. “I mean, other than a double-double, what else could this group do?”

Lenahan will find out Thursday night.