Spring forward: Women's tennis

With the NU women’s tennis team taking on top-seeded Stanford in the third round of the NCAA tournament this evening, now seems as good a time as any to take a closer look at the team in our spring sports series. (Also, wanted to get this in before the rapture.)

For 13 seasons, the Wildcats have been the class of the Big Ten, winning every single conference tournament title in that span. But their NCAA tournament ceiling seems to top out somewhere between the Round of 16 and the quarterfinals, as the Wildcats annually seem to fall in one of those two rounds. That includes 2009, when they were ranked No. 1 in the country and eventually lost to Cal in the quarterfinals.

I don’t mean to belittle the team’s accomplishments, as finishing among the top eight or 16 teams in the country every year is really good. In fact, NU has gotten to the Round of 16 in 10 of the last 11 years.

This year, though, the path is pretty tough, with undefeated and defending national champion Stanford standing in the way. The Cardinal, which are hosting the match, are loaded, with their top five singles players going a combined 79-7 on the year. But in welcome news for the Wildcats, freshman phenom Belinda Niu, who missed NU’s second round match against Notre Dame after slipping on the court in her previous match and injuring her leg, will be back in the lineup.

The Wildcats and Cardinal square off at 8 p.m. CT tonight, and if NU manages to pull the upset, it’ll face either No. 8 seed Georgia or No. 9 seed Cal on Sunday.

Hit the jump for a deeper dive into the team.

Most recent result: The Wildcats hosted their first two matchups in the NCAA tournament last weekend, sweeping IPFW in the first round, 4-0, and then sweeping Notre Dame in the second, 4-0.

How does the sport work? Teams start off each dual match with three doubles matches. The team that wins two or three of the doubles matches earns the doubles point. Then there are six singles matches, with each win worth one point. Thus, seven total points are at play. Earn four out of the seven, and you’ve got yourself a win.

Sixty-four teams make the single-elimination NCAA tournament. After the team title is decided, the individual singles and doubles tournaments occur the following week. Sixty-four singles players are selected, and 32 doubles teams are selected.

How’s the team doing? The Wildcats are really young this season, with just one senior — albeit a great one in Maria Mosolova. The team got off to a bit of a rough start due to a very tough schedule but finished the non-conference season 8-5. All five losses came against ranked teams, while NU also beat three ranked teams.

Then the Wildcats cruised through the Big Ten season, until a midseason non-conference loss to No. 7 Baylor, and then after a couple more Big Ten wins, a loss to No. 10 Michigan, who ended up winning the regular season conference title. In the Big Ten tournament, though, NU got revenge, beating Michigan, 4-3, to capture the Wildcats’ 13th straight tournament championship.

All in all, the Wildcats are 22-7 on the season and ranked 14th by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association poll.

How did they do last year? NU finished the year ranked No. 7, falling in the NCAA tournament Round of 16 toMiami. The team started the season with a preseason No. 2 ranking and for a short period was ranked No. 1. That marked the third year in a row that the Wildcats earned a No. 1 ranking. And, of course, it goes without saying that NU won the Big Ten championship.

What’s the historical context? Given that collegiate tennis is generally dominated by teams in the South and West, NU has definitely held its own. In fact, in 2008, NU became the first northern school to win the prestigious ITA National Indoor Team Championship, which a huge early-season tournament featuring most of the country’s top teams. NU won the championship again in 2009.

Who are the players to watch?  Mosolova is the team’s star at No. 1 singles, putting up a 22-2 record. She’s also gone 19-7 in doubles play, mostly teaming with freshman Belinda Niu. Moslova is a four-time All-Big Ten selection and will be gunning for her fourth All-American honor, when she competes at the NCAA singles championship later this month. She has twice reached the quarterfinals of the singles tournament and is the 10th-ranked singles player nationally.

The aforementioned Niu, who was just 16 when she enrolled at Northwestern last summer, is 19-6, playing mostly as the team’s No. 2 singles player. Ranked 68th in singles, she is an alternate for the NCAA singles championship.

The doubles pairing of sophomore Linda Abu Mushrefova and freshman Nida Hamilton also qualified for the NCAA doubles championship. The pair is ranked 12th nationally in doubles. Mushrefova has also gone 13-7 in singles, mostly in the Nos. 5 and 6 slots, while Hamilton has gone 10-4 in singles, mostly in the No. 6 slot.

Sophomore Brittany Wowchuk, ranked 78th in singles, has gone 11-7 in the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 singles slots. She has also gone 17-4 in doubles, mostly teaming with junior Elena Chernyakova.

Sophomore Kate Turvy has gone 20-6 from the Nos. 3 and 4 singles slots, and junior Stacey Lee rounds out the line-up, going 15-8 from mostly the No. 5 singles slot.

Who are the coaches? The architect of NU’s dominating stretch of play is head coach Claire Pollard. The Wildcats have been to the NCAA tournament every season since she took the helm in 1999, and until this year’s 2nd place finish in the Big Ten regular season, the Wildcats had finished atop the conference standings every season of her tenure.

Pollard, an England native and 1989 Mississippi State graduate, was named the Wilson/ITA National Coach of the Year in 2008 and has also been named Big Ten Coach of the Year five times. Earlier this season against Iowa, she earned the 300th victory in her NU career.

Pollard’s college teammate, Jackie Holdren, serves as the team’s associate head coach. Pollard and Holdren teamed up in 1989 to win the NCAA double’s championship. Holdren, who earlier this week was named ITA Midwest Assistant Coach of the Year, also is an England native and is in her third season with NU. 

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