Men’s Tennis: No. 16 Northwestern to kick off Big Ten play against No. 23 Illinois
March 1, 2017
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Fifteen games into the 2017 season, the Wildcats have experienced both lofty highs and crushing lows, the latter defining their recent stretch. This weekend, they’ll look to reach another peak.
No. 16 Northwestern (11-5) will travel to No. 23 Illinois (6-4, 1-0 Big Ten) on Friday to begin Big Ten play and return home Sunday in a non-conference matchup with Texas Tech (6-7).
After watching his team drop five of its last six matches, coach Arvid Swan said the Cats have to improve all facets of their game to compete with the Big Ten’s best.
“We have to play at a higher level, there’s no question,” Swan said.
Illinois’ record might not appear impressive, but the team, much like NU, has endured an extremely difficult schedule this season. All of the Fighting Illini’s losses have come against ranked programs, including then-No. 1 Virginia.
Four of NU’s five losses have come against ranked teams — No. 5 Oklahoma State twice, No. 4 Oklahoma and No. 14 Mississippi State. Its sole win over a top-25 program is a Jan. 20 victory over then-No. 7 TCU, which has since dropped from the rankings.
Senior Strong Kirchheimer, who is ranked No. 28, said though the team has struggled against tough competition in recent weeks, it must not change its mindset entering the battle with the Fighting Illini, who are one of four ranked Big Ten programs.
“It’s just the same (as non-conference),” Kirchheimer said. “We keep on moving forward, and hopefully we get back on track.”
The Cats last played Illinois in last year’s Big Ten Tournament, where they fell to the Fighting Illini. NU had previously split its regular season matches with its in-state rival, securing one of its best wins of the season with a 4-3 home victory.
Swan said the looming road atmosphere will make the task at hand even more difficult.
“Illinois is a really good team,” Swan said. “But at home, they’re very tough.”
The Fighting Illini are 31-6 at home since 2015 and 3-2 during this year’s campaign, with the two losses coming against then-No. 7 North Carolina and then-No. 21 Kentucky.
Meanwhile, NU is just 16-9 in away matches since 2015 and has not won in Champaign in the last 20 years.
But in need of a signature win, the Cats will look to snap the streak and return to their winning ways with a decisive victory.
“Without question, we can go down there and win,” Swan said. “But we have to improve this week to get that done.”
The weekend’s second matchup, against the Red Raiders, should present less of a challenge and will give NU a good chance to walk away with at least one win. Even so, the Cats know a victory against Illinois would set the stage for an encouraging Big Ten campaign.
Still, it won’t come easy and will take a focused team effort, sophomore Jason Seidman said.
“We’re looking to go into the matches with a lot of energy,” he said. “If we have good preparation this week and all the guys show up, I think we can do some damage.”