U finishes fifth at Big Ten tournament

by Aaron Kirscht

With a week-old win over first-round opponent Northwestern in its hip pocket, the fourth-seeded Gophers women’s tennis team looked like a solid pick to advance to the semi-finals of the Big Ten tournament this weekend.
After all, they beat the fifth-seeded Wildcats 5-2 on April 19 at Evanston, Ill. But the repeat performance that Gophers coach Martin Novak had in mind wouldn’t be so simple. The Gophers handed Northwestern a split in the season series with a 4-3 loss on Friday in West Lafayette, Ind.
“We played well,” Novak said. “We just weren’t as aggressive or committed or hungry as they were.
“There could have been some preconceived notions that they would just go away, but Northwestern is traditionally a very good team.”
The Gophers (11-6, 6-5 in the Big Ten) finished fifth in the tournament and in a tie with Northwestern for fourth in the overall season standings.
In the first meeting of the two teams, Minnesota dominated with wins at Nos. 1, 2, 4 and 6 and took the doubles point. The second time around, the tables turned and the Gophers could win only twice in singles. Winning the doubles point again, which had been a rarity for Minnesota for much of the season, wasn’t enough.
“You have to give Northwestern a lot of credit,” Novak said. “They looked really dejected after giving up the doubles point, but they came out storming for the singles.”
Freshman Nora Sauska walloped Northwestern’s Katherine Nasser 6-3, 6-1 in their prior matchup, but Nasser returned the favor on Friday with a 6-3, 7-5 win. Sophomore Jana Hrdinova won in straight sets a week ago, but lost in three during the rematch.
Still, through all the role reversals, the match remained close.
With the teams tied at 3-3 and Minnesota’s Alice Rangsithienchai up 5-3 in the third set, the Gophers looked ready to eke out a second straight win over the Wildcats. Then Northwestern senior Marjorie Gantman took over, winning four straight games and the match, 6-7, 7-6, 7-5.
“It was pretty windy outside and (Gantman) utilized that to her advantage,” Novak said. “She was floating the ball all over the court. Sometimes Alice would think the ball was flying out and the wind would just stop it.
“But Alice didn’t choke it at all. It was a closely played match, but at the crucial points, Marjorie just played a little bit smarter. That’s all.”
The Gophers have played three freshman in the regular lineup for much of the season, and Novak said their inexperience may have been a stumbling block. But he expects the learning process to continue.
“Half of our team has never seen a year or a tournament like this,” he said, “so it was all new to them. We’ve just got to mature.”
Minnesota is on the bubble for an NCAA regional tournament bid, which will be announced on Tuesday. If they make the field, the Gophers will likely be seeded anywhere between No. 6 and No. 8, Novak said. The tournament begins May 9 in South Bend, Ind.
The Big Ten coaches will vote Monday by conference call on the All-Big Ten team. Last season, Rangsithienchai was named All-Big Ten and Newcomer of the Year. Sauska is likely to receive the same honors this season.
Sauska and Rangsithienchai are also candidates for the NCAA singles tournament, which will be played at Stanford later this month.