Daily file photo by Melody Song
During the 2008-09 season, Northwestern made a run to the NCAA Tournament, earned an 18-9 record and peaked at No. 42 in the rankings.
But no one on the current team was there for that. Three wins in the Big Ten across the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons found the Wildcats outside the top 50 for 97 straight weeks, and NU lost its footing in the conference, tying with Purdue and Michigan State for the worst Big Ten record in 2010 with just one match.
“We were a team that was kind of in the rebuilding stage,” senior Chris Jackman said. “(Coach) Arvid (Swan) was looking for players that would be able to contribute immediately and help bring a program that was not so hot at the time to a top 25-caliber team. That challenge of coming into a new place with little success and bringing it to a new level really excited me.”
Swan came to NU after a stint at DePaul University during the 2006-07 season. He only spent one year at DePaul, but it made a big impact. Swan led the Blue Demons to an 18-7 season record after their 8-14 showing the previous year.
When Swan joined the Cats in 2007, his work at DePaul and his ability to turn a team around had already made an impression on his future players.
“I was looking at other programs like Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Duke, Notre Dame,” senior Spencer Wolf said. “I wanted to go to a place where I knew I could make an impact on the team and a place where I felt like the coach could really help me improve.”
Swan emphasizes the high level of intensity across the board on his team, as well as the depth of talent. But in addition to their never-say-die attitude, the Cats’ chemistry has been a crucial part of their success.
“It’s a competitive team,” Swan said. “And they just care about each other. Those are probably our biggest strengths. It’s a team that I really enjoy coaching because I know what kind of an effort they’re going to give. Whether we win or lose, the team is going to play hard.”
Another key to the Cats’ turnaround has been assistant coach Chris Klingemann, an Ohio State alumnus who helped the Buckeyes bring home two Big Ten Tournament titles and earn three straight NCAA quarterfinal appearances from 2005 to 2007. Klingemann is in only his second season at NU, but Wolf credits him with helping rebuild the team’s confidence.
“Confidence doesn’t just come from talking or winning the matches,” Klingemann said. “Confidence comes from the practice and knowing you’ve worked hard. It’s about discipline and putting the hours in, which they’ve done. It gives you confidence so when you’re in that moment to win against the tough teams, you believe in yourself.”
Last season saw a complete turnaround from the Cats, who earned a 7-4 Big Ten record, a No. 43 ranking and a berth in the NCAA Tournament, all amid a climate of increased competition at the collegiate level.
“I think there was a period of time where college tennis wasn’t as strong,” Wolf said. “People who were very good in high school would just go pro. That’s not the case anymore. … I think the average age of a pro tennis player on the guy’s side is 26. Our best tennis is still ahead of us, and people are starting to realize that now.”
This year, NU has had more trouble in the Big Ten, earning a 4-5 record with two matches left to play, but improvement has been the team’s focus throughout the entire season, and a strong postseason showing is the ultimate goal.
Now is the Cats’ final weekend to put it all together before the Big Ten Tournament. NU will first face Purdue in Evanston on Friday, followed by a duel against Indiana on the road Sunday.
For the seniors, Friday could be the final home match of their careers, depending on the team’s ranking and placement in the NCAA draw. But if it is, the Cats can leave knowing they’ve left it all on the court.
“I know that we’re not going to let little things affect us, and I have confidence in all my teammates at every spot,” Jackman said. “For the teams that do well, they don’t just play for themselves. They’re playing for one another. At the end of the day, I don’t want to lose my match not just for me but for my teammates.”