There’s a new superstar sports team on campus this year — and no, it’s not a varsity one. In this episode of Cats Corner, we hear from three players on the Club Tennis team about their dominant season: going undefeated in tournament play, winning sectionals and finishing in the top-15 at nationals after not competing in nearly two years.
LAWRENCE PRICE: As the school year comes to a close, it’s easy to point to Northwestern athletic programs that had very successful seasons. From field hockey’s national championship win in the fall, to wrestling’s fourth-highest NCAA championship finish in program history in the winter, to both lacrosse’s and softball’s dominant seasons this spring, there’s been a lot to be proud of in NU sports. However, there’s more flowers to give out.
LAWRENCE PRICE: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Lawrence Price. This is Cats Corner, a podcast that gives you an inside look into Northwestern sports, both on the field and in the locker room. Today, we’re talking about NU’s club tennis team, and how they managed to build community while making history on the court.
JOSIP APOSTOLOSKI: I spent three to five hours a day, pretty much every day throughout high school, trying to get better and trying to pursue that as a career. Even though I came to Northwestern thinking about tennis in a way like, I would be okay if this is the end of my tennis journey, I was still very much so looking for opportunities to play and to get better and to get involved, and Club Tennis was that opportunity for me.
LAWRENCE PRICE: For former Club President and Weinberg senior Josip Apostoloski, tennis has been a constant part of his life. When he came to Northwestern, Josip met 2020 graduate and former Co-Travel Team Captain Kaloyan Valchev, who helped him stay close to the game.
JOSIP APOSTOLOSKI: I was actually lucky, someone I used to watch, someone who’s a little older than me, two years older, I used to watch at some of the tournaments that we play, and we became very good friends through club tennis. So he kind of introduced me to the Northwestern tennis community.
LAWRENCE PRICE: Although Josip was a member of the club his freshman and sophomore years, he wasn’t super involved. That was until sectionals the winter right before the pandemic, where the team placed third.
JOSIP APOSTOLOSKI: That was a big moment for me because that got me amped up to be more involved and to try to do better and to try to overcome this obstacle that we faced.
LAWRENCE PRICE: But when their season was canceled due to COVID-19, Josip said he didn’t know when it would resume.
JOSIP APOSTOLOSKI: So it was basically like almost two years of no events happening. During this time, I kind of had to sit with those feelings I had about really wanting to get over this obstacle and kind of overcoming those challenges.
LAWRENCE PRICE: The team wouldn’t take the court again until winter of 2021. And even then, the team had to wear masks and couldn’t compete in tournaments.
But current sophomores Eve Gold and Mark MacGuidwin found the club to be an escape from the pandemic when they joined as freshmen. It helped them make strong bonds with their peers during remote classes.
EVE GOLD: The first year was much more of a social outlet. It was very relaxed, you know, people would just casually come to practice, and we’d all go hang out afterwards. I would go twice,three times a week just to see my friends because there really wasn’t much else to do.
MARK MACGUIDWIN: Coming in, I really had no expectations. I didn’t really know what club tennis looked like. I didn’t know if teams competed or what not. So originally, I joined this just looking for a place to play tennis with other kids who loved the sport growing up, and I thought it’d be a good place to build community, especially that first year, trying to navigate playing tennis as much as possible while still staying COVID safe.
LAWRENCE PRICE: Josip made sure to find ways for the team to mix community with competition. As a captain, to prepare for the next year, Josip organized a club tennis league, a weekend event during spring 2021 that allowed players to sign up throughout the week and play matches against one another.
JOSIP APOSTOLOSKI: One of my fears was that because COVID was so unpredictable that a lot of these competitive tennis players who were freshmen and sophomores of the time, that they would kind of lose their drive for tennis or pick up something else that will take up the rest of their time. Because of that community aspect, it helps when you have people that play with each other and see each other like a couple times a week.
LAWRENCE PRICE: When they returned to the courts this fall, the tennis team was finally able to compete again. But because of COVID-19, most of the group had never played competitive tennis before. Even Josip, a senior and the president of the club, said the last time he had faced a real opponent was his sophomore year.
JOSIP APOSTOLOSKI: The last tournament we had played, someone like me who was a senior this year, would have been the youngest person to experience it. So, I was both the youngest and oldest person there because no one else had this experience.
LAWRENCE PRICE: Even while playing at an unfamiliar stage — and with scoring rules that were different from high school — new players like Eve said they still welcomed the opportunity to play.
EVE GOLD: In the fall, I had a goal in mind. I was like, “Okay, I’m going to make this lineup, I’m going to go to practice a lot, you know, play matches.” And I think there was a lot of people that had kind of a switch of that mindset, because people would start coming to practice more often, you know, we’d be playing a lot more matches instead of fun games that really don’t mean anything.
LAWRENCE PRICE: For Mark, it was also a chance to engage in some real competition again.
MARK MACGUIDWIN: It was something that myself and a lot of other people on the team coming into were really excited about — maybe we were just COVID frenzy, maybe we just want to go off campus. But when you have kids coming to practice two, three times a week, we want to see how we stack up against other teams in the Midwest and perhaps the nation.
LAWRENCE PRICE: In the years leading up to the pandemic, the team had gotten to nationals and placed 33rd, Mark said.
MARK MACGUIDWIN: — which was great. But we have heard from our president that with the incoming two classes, he thinks that we were better, or the best team that we’ve had in years.
LAWRENCE PRICE: And Josip was right. The club played its first tournament, the GrizzBash, the fifth weekend of the academic year in Rochester, Michigan. They left as champions.
EVE GOLD: I think we were all kind of in shock, because we knew we were good, but we had never compared ourselves to other teams. So that was a fun realization to have, we’re like, “wow, we actually have a chance of being one of the best.”
LAWRENCE PRICE: Michigan was the start of a winning streak. They won each tournament they played in, including the Wisconsin Badger Classic and another one hosted by Notre Dame. Players said other teams began to recognize that the Cats were back.
MARK MACGUIDWIN: They’re like, you know, Northwestern was always a good team, but you guys just seem to come out of nowhere, like are you guys recruiting from somewhere? Like, are you taking walk-ons from the varsity team or, packing some grad students into the lineup?
LAWRENCE PRICE: As they got ready for sectionals in February, the team was confident — even though most of the team had never played on the sectional stage before. However, with the team chemistry already strong, the team was ready to compete. They were facing their number one opponent and the team they lost to in 2020, Ohio State.
LAWRENCE PRICE: As arguably two of the top teams at sectionals, NU and Ohio State both thought their match would happen late into the weekend, either in the semifinals or finals. Instead, the two clubs were matched to play in the quarterfinals. To qualify for the national tournament in Orlando, Florida, Northwestern had to finish in the top five at sectionals, and with a loss to the Buckeyes, this goal would be much harder to achieve.
EVE GOLD: The lead was going back and forth, so we were all stressed out, and it ended up coming down to the last match. And, you know, it was very close, but we pulled it out, and I think everybody was just so excited. To us, that kind of felt like the finals as opposed to the semifinals, just because from an emotional perspective, it felt like a really big win.
LAWRENCE PRICE: After the victory against Ohio State, Northwestern would go on to beat Purdue in the semifinals and Wisconsin in the finals, claiming the title “Best in the Midwest.” It was their first first-place finish in program history.
JOSIP APOSTOLOSKI: I think sectionals was our greatest achievement this season. Everyone that was there, even the people who didn’t play at all, everyone contributed significantly and made it such a great experience. For me, as someone who was graduating, it was very, very special. It was one of the highlights of my college career.
LAWRENCE PRICE: Although the team’s job wasn’t finished with the season, most of the players viewed the national tournament as a chance to have fun and see how they stacked up against the best in the country.
MARK MACGUIDWIN: I was chosen to play both our men’s doubles and a mixed doubles match. And I was feeling pretty nervous beforehand. This is arguably our most important match of the season.
LAWRENCE PRICE: Mark said he holds tennis very close to his heart. After losing his high school senior season to COVID-19 cancellations, being able to bond and play with others at the national headquarters of American tennis meant the world to him.
MARK MACGUIDWIN: I was anxious, just like anybody else who would be in that position, you know, questioning whether I really deserved to be there and if I’d be able to perform. But I had a really good talk with our team captain at the time, Liam Schenk, just being able to have that real talk with him right before an important match, I knew that him in particular, and that everyone in the team was there to support me.
LAWRENCE PRICE: Due to a few bad early draws, Northwestern faced some of the tougher competition earlier than expected, including California, the number two team in the round of 16. Even with these setbacks, by the end of the tournament, Northwestern finished 11th out of 64 teams, a new program record.
EVE GOLD: It was a lot of fun to be there with my team and had a lot of team bonding, brought each other closer and we did better than our expectations were. But all of us have agreed that we could have placed higher. We ended up playing our hardest match, a little bit too early. It should have been later on. But yeah, I think it’s good for us. Because now we have something else to work for next year, like another goal to do better than we have done.
LAWRENCE PRICE: Even though their season is over, the team is looking forward to another successful season next year, losing only a small number of players. Mark can’t wait to compete again and build bonds and more friendships off the court as well.
MARK MACGUIDWIN: Regardless of how we do, I think focusing on the community that we’re building here at Northwestern and the friends around us will always be the most important. I’m glad to say that my first year and a half, almost, has been that perfect blend of community.
LAWRENCE PRICE: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Lawrence Price. Thanks for listening to another episode of Cats Corner. This episode was reported and produced by me, Lawrence Price. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Lucia Barnum, the digital managing editors are Will Clark and Katrina Pham, and the editor in chief is Jacob Fulton. Make sure to subscribe to The Daily Northwestern’s podcasts on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or SoundCloud to hear more episodes like this.
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— Club Tennis: Northwestern puts the Midwest on the map, making program history, placing 11th at Nationals
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