Daily file photo by Alison Albelda
Facing No. 16 Illinois in the final match of the regular season, Northwestern jumped out to an early 3-1 lead. However, the Wildcats (12-6, 11-5 Big Ten) couldn’t close the door on the Fighting Illini.
Five of the six NU players were able to take the first set off Illinois (17-2, 14-1 Big Ten) in singles, but some of the Cats started to falter as the match progressed. The Fighting Illini picked up crucial points in the final three sets for a 4-3 overall victory.
“We got down some breaks early in second sets,” coach Arvid Swan said. “That resulted in three-set matches, where maybe we could have won in two sets. But (with) two evenly matched teams, they came out on top today.”
For the 12th straight match, NU started off by gaining the doubles point. Graduate students Chris Ephron and Dominik Stary beat Illinois’ Noe Khlif and Siphosothando Montsi for their 10th consecutive victory as a duo, while sophomore Natan Spear and junior Steven Forman quickly defeated the Fighting Illini’s Alex Petrov and Vuk Budic.
Singles play started in the Cats’ favor as well. Stary took down the Fighting Illini’s Alex Brown without having his serve broken. Then, freshman Presley Thieneman persevered through a light drizzle and a second set back-and-forth tiebreaker to give NU the individual contest, 6-2, 7-6 (9-7). However, senior Nick Brookes fell to Illinois’ Zeke Clark.
“The energy of the team, those guys on the side were really loud, pumping me up,” Thieneman said. “I was just trying to keep it one point at a time, not trying to think too much.”
With his victory over Illinois’ Lucas Horve, Thieneman ended the regular season with a perfect 10-0 record in singles. He credited his success to working on his net game and forehand throughout the season, as well as his serve.
“It’s definitely been good for my confidence, winning these matches, getting some experience,” Thieneman said, “But I think the most important thing is just doing my job for the team. It’s bigger than me.”
But it all fell apart for NU. Forman and Ephron never recovered from sluggish starts in their third sets, while junior Trice Pickens couldn’t capitalize off serves at the end of the decisive match.
“Give them credit for how they finished,” Swan said. “I think that’s probably our biggest takeaway, we just got to try to win the first set and then get up a break in the second.”
The Cats will have a weeklong gap in their schedule before the Big Ten Tournament begins on April 29. This year, Nebraska will host the event, meaning that Swan’s squad will need to adapt to the Cornhuskers’ slower courts, particularly if the weather makes indoor play necessary.
“We have pretty solid game plans for each opponent,” Swan said. “Adjustments are more on the conditions rather than the teams we play.”
Before the match, NU honored four athletes playing their final collegiate tennis in Evanston for Senior Day. Stary, Ephron, Brookes and senior AJ Joshi all walked to the center of Court 1 to receive plaques and a formal announcement of their achievements as Cats.
“It’s tough to see those guys go. They’ve been really great leaders for the team, really great players, too,” Thieneman said. “Being able to have them as my role models for this year, it’s been really cool. But I’m hoping that we can keep going for them and make a run in the tournament.”
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