Women’s Tennis: Wildcats’ Big Ten Championship streak ends at 16


Sean Su/Daily Senior Staffer

Brooke Rischbieth winds up for a return. Play was suspended before the sophomore finished her singles match against Ohio State.

Alex Lederman, Reporter

Women’s Tennis

When coach Claire Pollard won her first Big Ten Tournament in 1999, Bill Clinton was still president, Michael Jordan announced his second retirement and Canadian pop icon Justin Bieber was only five years old.

Since the turn of the millennium, the Boston Red Sox won three World Series, smartphones and social media changed the speed of communication and Bieber Fever swept the nation.

And consistently throughout, Northwestern won the Big Ten Tournament.

Now, for the first time in 17 years, the Wildcats can’t call themselves Big Ten champions.

Big-ten ranked No. 3 NU fell 4-1 Saturday to No. 2 Ohio State in the conference tournament semifinals, ending the Cats’ run of 16-straight regular season or postseason Big Ten titles.

“If you had told me when I arrived that we would have that kind of streak,” Pollard said, “I would have taken it. I’d take a one-streak, a two-streak, a three-streak, whatever it is. The fact that it was 16 just speaks to the volume of all the players that have made this program great.”

The Cats may have lost Saturday, but they sure didn’t make it easy for the Buckeyes.

All three doubles matches were tight. NU jumped out to early leads, but Ohio State claimed the No. 1 and No. 3 matches 8-6 before play was suspended in No. 2 at 7-6.

“We had some good momentum early on in doubles and couldn’t quite capitalize on it,” Pollard said. “Credit to Ohio State. They withstood that surge that we made and they knuckled down, kept their composure and were able to bounce back and take the doubles point.”

Down 1-0, the Cats had ground to make up in singles. To stay in the tournament, NU could lose no more than two singles matches.

The team didn’t give itself much wiggle room.

First, senior Lok Sze Leung fell 6-2, 6-2 to Sandy Niehaus at No. 3 singles. Then, junior Alicia Barnett lost 6-4, 6-3 to Gabriella De Santis at No. 1.

Yet even behind 3-0, one thing remained certain. The Cats couldn’t be counted out — particularly in the Big Ten Tournament.

Just one day earlier, NU bounced back from a 3-1 deficit to Illinois to win 4-3. The Cats lost the doubles point and Nos. 5 and 6 singles, but had clutch performances from Barnett, freshman Erin Larner and Leung at Nos. 1, 2 and 3 singles to come away victorious.

Similarly, the Cats enjoyed a remarkable come-from-behind victory over Michigan just one year ago in the conference tournament final. Down 3-1 to start and 5-2 in the third set of No. 2 singles, the Cats seemed down and out. But then-senior Belinda Niu dug deep, fought back and won the next five games to take the match and championship.

For a while, it looked like NU might again complete the miraculous.

All four remaining matches were in the third set, and the telltale signs were there for another vintage Cats comeback.

“We didn’t roll over in any matches,” Pollard said. “Where we lost, we made them beat us.”

Larner finished first and reduced the deficit to two, turning in a standout performance. She lost the second set, but convincingly took the third to top Anna Sanford 6-3, 3-6, 6-2.

“(Sanford) definitely started playing better in the second set,” Larner said. “She raised her level and challenged me to have to raise mine. The third set, we were both really battling it out. It came down to who was going to make more shots.”

With one down, the Cats had three to go.

Freshman Alex Chatt’s match was heading toward a dramatic finish and her classmate Rheeya Doshi and sophomore Brooke Rischbieth had just forced their matches into a third set. Destiny seemed on NU’s side.

But it wasn’t meant to be.

The Cats needed to win all three matches, and Chatt, it seemed, would have to take care of business first.

Yet in the back-and-forth match, she came up short against Miho Kowase, falling 1-6, 6-1, 6-3. On the second to last point of the match, with the Cats’ title hopes on the line, she smashed a shot right into the net.

With that, play was suspended in Doshi and Rischbieth’s matches (3-3 and 0-1 in the third sets, respectively), and NU walked off the court in defeat.

The Cats’ streak was officially over.

“Props to Ohio State,” Larner said. “They pulled out some great points when they needed to, and it just kind of went their way a little bit more today.”

The Buckeyes advanced to the final, where they lost to Michigan 4-0 on Sunday.

Even with the loss, Pollard said she liked what she saw from her team.

“I thought we probably played our best match of the year,” she said. “At the end of the day, they just executed a little better than we did.”

NU faced challenges all year — injuries, inconsistencies — but ultimately had a strong season, even with Saturday’s defeat.

“This has been one of the groups that’s come the furthest,” Pollard said. “These players need to hold their heads up high. They’ve dealt with a lot of tough situations this year and tough times. I’m disappointed for them, but really, really proud.”

But even for a team known for miracles, the difficulties added up to an insurmountable challenge.

“All year we were like half a position off,” Pollard said. “We’re just half a position higher than I would like. And at the end of the day, that proved to be a little too much.”

Correction: A previous caption misidentified the women’s tennis player. The correct player is sophomore Brooke Rischbieth. The Daily regrets the error.

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