At a distant glance, Northwestern’s reliance on youth and its propensity to schedule the elite teams of college tennis figured to doom the Wildcats to a dreary season on the courts.
But at 10-4 and No. 23 in the country, the team is proving proper context matters.
For one, coach Arvid Swan’s active search for a challenging slate is not singular to this season. In his time at NU, Swan has consistently brought in a slew of talented opponents in non-conference play despite a daunting group of Big Ten foes. In both 2011 and 2012, the Cats battled half a dozen ranked foes before the conference season. That number jumped to 10 last year and will settle at nine this winter after the team’s match with No. 38 Louisville on Friday.
Swan’s players have simply become accustomed to a series of competitions that offer very few chances to crank down the pressure gauge.
A closer look at the team’s youth is more important, though. Senior Raleigh Smith undoubtedly remains the team leader, holding down the fort at the team’s No. 1 singles spot and as a part of the No. 1 doubles squad. But a top-10 recruiting class has paid dividends for the Cats from the get-go.
Indeed, three freshmen have been regulars in NU’s singles lineup. Sam Shropshire, entrusted with the No. 2 singles spot, has led the youth brigade. And the Philadelphia product has stepped up to the challenge, posting a 7-3 mark in singles thus far and vaulting to No. 85 in the national singles rankings.
But his fellow classmates are not far behind. Strong Kirchheimer has lived up to his first name on the court, coming in at 7-2 thus far, mostly at No. 4 singles. Alp Horoz, yet another newcomer, has flipped between the No. 5 and No. 6 and sports a 5-3 record for his efforts.
The three underclassmen have proven being a freshman-laden squad is not always detrimental. To the contrary, the trio has played a significant role in staking NU to three wins over top-50 opponents.
The Cats also maintain a strong presence elsewhere in singles. Smith has earned the No. 44 ranking in singles and his results have backed that up. From the No. 1 singles spot, the senior has a 6-3 record, defeating three ranked opponents in the process.
Sophomores Mihir Kumar and Fedor Baev also have winning singles records, mainly at the No. 3 and No. 6 spots, respectively.
NU is clearly strong in singles. Doubles is more of a mixed bag. The Cats are a precarious 8-6 in that area and have been unable to build on two three-game winning streaks in this early part of the season.
This will become an important point as the team heads to Big Ten season. The Cats have one more contest before conference play starts, but the trends at this point are clear: NU is highly formidable in singles — the Cats took five of six from No. 24 North Carolina State two days after a devastating loss halfway across the country.
The team has to remain strong there and progress in doubles if it wishes to stake its claim near the top of the conference.
NU is in good position at this point, but the Cats were No. 18 as late as March last year before falling to No. 36 by season’s end.
Swan and his team will certainly hope to avoid the same fate that befell them last season. The squad is relatively healthy at this point and surging up the rankings. Doubles play may decide whether they continue in their current position or fall back to the pack.
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