Men’s Tennis: Northwestern in position to establish itself as an elite program


Daily file photo by Brian Lee

Sam Shropshire prepares to go on the attack. The sophomore currently holds down the fort at No. 1 singles and No. 2 doubles for Northwestern.

David Lee, Reporter

Spring Sports Guide

Anyone involved with Northwestern has two clear goals this spring: win the Big Ten and NCAA tournament.

For an outfit with such lofty ambitions, NU has not yet been able to establish itself as a first-tier program. But this year, with an experienced roster and brutal non-conference schedule, the Cats just might be able to accomplish the Big Ten dream.

Last year, the Cats were an extremely young roster featuring four freshmen that made up the eighth-ranked recruiting class in the nation. Now sophomores, Alp Horoz, Strong Kirchheimer, Sam Shropshire and Konrad Zieba are back with more experience and are poised to take NU to the next level. Kirchheimer and Shropshire have also elevated themselves to notoriety, holding the No. 64 and No. 96 national rankings in singles, respectively. Shropshire now mans the No. 1 singles and No. 2 doubles positions and has an impressive 15-13 record against opposing teams’ top players.

And those opponents have been some of the toughest in the country. Coach Arvid Swan deliberately tries to give his team the toughest non-conference schedule he can find.

This year, he has outdone himself. With only 10 games under its belt this season, NU has already faced eight ranked opponents, and posted a 6-4 mark against this brutal slate. Those teams include No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 7 Duke, No. 17 Notre Dame and No. 23 Vanderbilt.

“This was actually the toughest non-conference season we’ve had since I’ve been here,” senior Alex Pasareanu said. “The quality of the teams we’ve been playing has been really, really, really high, so we weren’t expecting anything spectacular.”

Although NU fell to last year’s NCAA runner-up Oklahoma 4-1, the squad forced all but two of the matchups to a third set.

The only player who was handily defeated that day was Logan Staggs, the team’s lone freshman, who lost 6-2, 6-2. Staggs was the fifth-ranked recruit in the nation last year, but he staggered to a 2-4 start in dual matches.

Staggs has since found his footing, in more ways than one. Staggs ascribed at least part of his early season struggles on having to transition to an indoor court. The California native had been playing outdoors most of his life and had gotten used to the pace of outdoor play. Indoor courts can be more punishing. Balls move faster and serves are harder, putting additional pressure on Staggs as he transitioned into college play.

The freshman was named the Big Ten Athlete of the Week on Feb. 10 after winning three straight singles matches, including a bout against Harvard’s No. 86 Sebastian Beltrame.

I feel comfortable now knowing I have a few good wins under my belt,” Staggs said. “I definitely feel a whole lot better. In the beginning it was a little bit rough, some ups and downs, but after that good weekend for me I feel much better.”

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of NU’s play this season has been its ability to perform without a singular dominant star. This squad bears little resemblance to the dynamic of last year’s, which was clearly led by then-senior Raleigh Smith. Smith ranked as high as No. 37 last year in singles and was the de facto team leader. Heading into conference play, the Cats don’t have a single player in the top 63 and have transitioned into a more balanced approach.

“I think the vibe is really good,” said Pasareanu, when asked about the team atmosphere. “Tennis is an individual sport but, at the same time, in college, support is important.

NU has been battling against the very best opponents it can find and say they have emerged bruised, battered but better.

“We don’t have anyone who’s top 20, top 30 in the country so we all need to be together as a group and we all need to fight,” Pasareanu said. “And if we do that I think we have a great chance.”

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