EVANSTON, Ill. — Northwestern’s perennial powerhouse is at it again.
The Wildcats women’s tennis team is headed to Washington this weekend after punching a ticket to their 24th consecutive NCAA tournament.
“I was a transfer, so when I came, I really understood ‘Wow, this is a serious program,'” explained junior Julie Byrne. “Everyone buys in. That was the first thing I noticed.”
Twenty-four in a row is special. So is 30 times in school history. But streaks like head coach Claire Pollard’s 21 straight are almost unheard of. Pollard has led the Cats to nationals every year since taking over the program in 1999.
“I couldn’t even tell you what happened last year,” laughed Pollard. “It’s just really fun. I don’t think I’ve ever worked a day in my life. I get to come and hit tennis balls and watch young people hit tennis balls.
“I just try not to screw it up. It’s really the goal. If I let them do their thing, I tend to look really good, which is really nice.”
“She’s an unbelievable coach but a better person,” Byrne noted. “She’s there for you on-court, off-court, all the time. Her expertise and her knowledge is something I’ve never experienced before. She knows the game inside and out. She’s continuously making all of us better. Not one person on our team hasn’t improved this year.”
This year wasn’t a sure thing. The team started out 3-3 and began April on a four-game losing streak before finishing the season at 15-10.
“We’re a tricky bunch,” Pollard joked. “They trick me sometimes. They play really, really well. Then we have had a few days we’d like to have back. I’ve got to be on my toes. I’m not really sure what we’re going to get.
“But I really enjoy them. They’re a great group of girls. They work hard. They compete hard. That’s all you can ask for.”
“It got a little bit scary at midseason. We all believed deep down we were good enough,” remarked Byrne. “Now we’re feeling really good. Losing a few matches and having to regroup for the Big Tens was really good for our team.”
First up for the Wildcats, a date with Princeton Friday afternoon. Northwestern is 3-1 all-time against the Tigers. The two teams will meet outdoors, which is a bit of a change of pace but not necessarily a bad thing.
“I actually think we’re a better outdoor team than indoor. I know that surprises a lot of people when I say that, but I really think we are. Bring it on. Let’s get outside.”