Men’s Tennis: Northwestern’s three star seniors enter final season with lofty expectations


Daily file photo by Daniel Tian

Konrad Zieba readies to serve. The senior, ranked No. 12 in the ITA preseason individual rankings, is one of three ranked seniors for Northwestern looking to make their marks in their final seasons.

Garrett Jochnau, Sports Web Producer

Men’s Tennis

It was obvious back in 2013 that there was something special about Northwestern’s freshman class. A trio of first-year competitors burst onto the scene, helping lead the Wildcats to a 21-11 record.

Sam Shropshire, a blue chip recruit, was the conference’s freshman of the year and a first team All-Big Ten selection. Konrad Zieba, a top player in Illinois in high school, anchored the team’s third singles spot to close the season. And Strong Kirchheimer led the team in wins, finishing the year with a 24-8 record at No. 5.

But even with their superlative starts to their NU careers, the three seniors’ growth is perhaps the most impressive. Now seniors, Zieba, Shropshire and Kirchheimer return to the court as the No. 12, 32 and 44 players in the nation, with historic success under their belts and the collective expectation to accomplish even more in their final seasons of collegiate tennis.

“(My career) flew by pretty quickly,” Zieba said. “I think every year I’ve gotten better, and I’m just hoping we can end (our careers) having our best year yet.”

Accomplishing such a goal would elevate the Cats into uncharted, elite territory. Their status as a conference powerhouse was solidified last year when they logged a 10-1 conference record, going 26-5 overall. Consistently ranked in the low teens, NU entered the offseason as the nation’s No. 14 program.

But even with unprecedented success, the team fell short of its goals. Ohio State beat the Cats in the regular season to claim the Big Ten title, and Illinois sent the team packing in the semifinals of the conference tournament. When NU was dispatched by Stanford in the second round of the NCAA tournament, so too were its dreams of making it to the main stage.

And with time running out, the trio has just one more opportunity to add to its legacy.

“We could have ended (last season) better,” Zieba said. “This year I think we have a really good team, and we have high expectations to do well.”

In many ways, the 2016-17 season represents the culmination of the program’s recent growth. Since Arvid Swan joined the roster as head coach for the 2007 season, NU has been on an upwards trajectory.

That progress helped Swan land the top notch recruiting class that now enters its final year, and after three years of improvement from the trio, Swan’s team now enters a defining season before the lineup changes drastically.

“There’s a sense of responsibility,” Swan said. “They’re an outstanding group. I mean, you’re looking at three of the best players to ever play for Northwestern — in one class. So I think there’s a sense of responsibility to have a great year in their senior year.”

The team isn’t going to get too far ahead of itself. Zieba, who emerged on the national scene last year during fall play, now enters with greater expectations and a chance to crack the nation’s top ten. But he said he’ll still approach each game as an underdog.

And Kirchheimer too is focused on the smaller things. Having exhibited remarkable mental growth over his time with the team, he’ll look to apply lessons in consistency as he seeks to help the Cats to a Big Ten title.

“I learned a lot from my first two years to be a little bit more consistent each time I show up, on the court or in practice,” he said. “I just try to be consistent in everything — mentality and play.”

And as they look to achieve on the court, they’ll simultaneously look to shepherd in a new era of NU tennis. With three freshman and three sophomores on the roster, Kirchheimer said the veterans will look to show the underclassmen the way.

For the program to continue to thrive after their graduation, such mentorship is expected, Swan said.

“I know they’ll make an impact in terms of just showing the guys how to go about their business,” the coach said. “Hopefully it sets the example of what’s expected when those guys leave.”

But in the end, the team — and the seniors — remain focused on the short term. After individual tournament play in the fall, they’ll kick off the official season against Vanderbilt on January 15, as their final chance to leave a legacy begins.

And with the clock ticking, the seniors won’t let a moment go to waste.

“We all have individual goals,” Zieba said. “But I just want to be the best teammate possible, give it all every match and make memories that we can share for the rest of our lives.”

Twitter: @GarrettJochnau