Men’s Tennis: Wildcats stay focused ahead of weekend road trip


Daily file photo by Daniel Tian

Sam Shropshire launches a backhand. The junior, and doubles partner Konrad Zieba, have locked up the No. 2 doubles spot for Northwestern thus far.

Garrett Jochnau, Assistant Sports Editor

Men’s Tennis

With the crux of its schedule in the rearview mirror, a surging Northwestern lineup will look to retain its focus and remain undefeated in Big Ten play during the upcoming weekend road trip.

Despite racing out to a historic 5-0 start in conference play — the program’s finest since 1997 — the No. 13 Wildcats are aware that a single loss could derail their oft-repeated goal of a Big Ten title and they enter Friday and Sunday’s contests against Nebraska and Iowa thinking accordingly.

“I think so far, we’ve done a great job,” junior Konrad Zieba said. “We’re just trying to maintain focus for every Big Ten team. Every team is good in the Big Ten, so just maintaining that focus is a key for us.”

Although neither Nebraska nor Iowa presents the obvious challenge to that Big Ten title in the same vein of conference powerhouse Illinois — who NU defeated in mid-March — the Cats’ understanding of the value of each individual game has them on their collective toes.

Still, NU enters the weekend ahead as heavy favorites in each contest.

Nebraska claims just one top-125 player in Dusty Boyer (122), who leads the team at No. 1 singles with a 14-3 record on the season. Iowa claims none and has found little consistency outside the No. 2 and No. 6 singles positions.

Meanwhile, NU’s depth has been a strength this year and should prove crucial as the regular season winds to a close.

“I think that (having depth) is huge,” junior Sam Shropshire said. “Last year I played one for the whole year and now we’re obviously doing a lot better this year, so I probably prefer this. If I could go on a team where I was playing five or six, that’d be amazing.”

Last year’s unanimous first team All-Big Ten selection, and currently ranked No. 40 in singles by the ITA, Shropshire has played the majority of the season at No. 2, but has lined up on the top court in three of his four most recent matches.

Along with junior Strong Kirchheimer — whose recent string of dominance earned him a Big Ten Athlete of the Week award and a boost from No. 97 to No. 68 in the rankings — Zieba and Shropshire present significant matchup issues for all opponents.

And although the Cats’ four consecutive shutouts offer unprecedented momentum entering the weekend slate, all four wins came at home. Stealing victories on the road represents a whole new challenge, Zieba said.

“Going on the road is always tough, especially with home crowds and different conditions — you don’t know whether you’re playing indoors or outdoors,” he said. “So it’s definitely tough, but picking up wins on the road definitely gives us confidence.”

Shropshire agreed, citing crowds as game-changers and noting that winning on the road is more difficult than defending home court. But he also said the heightened stakes only add to the excitement that comes with the season’s home stretch.

And with two relatively easy matches ahead, NU will enter the weekend characteristically focused and eyeing the bigger picture.

“This is what we’re excited for, the end of the season,” Shropshire said. “Especially in May, the NCAA Tournament, Big Ten Tournament — that’s what we’re excited about.”

Twitter: @garrettjochnau