Wildcats lying in wait for streaking Illini tennis

The Illini baseball team’s win against No. 1 LSU last Friday provided a blueprint for the No. 33 Illinois women’s tennis team when it travels to face No. 1 Northwestern on Friday.

Junior Annie McCarthy could not pinpoint the parallel between baseball and tennis but settled on a single word: “motivation.”

Illinois (10-2, 2-0 Big Ten) is fresh off a pair of wins against then-No. 36 Indiana and Purdue and is riding an eight-match winning streak. Its last loss came against then-No. 5 Stanford on Jan. 31. Even with the momentum, the Illini know this weekend won’t be easy.

“(Northwestern) is a good, solid team,” redshirt sophomore Leigh Finnegan said. “They have a lot of depth in their lineup.”

The Wildcats (11-1, 2-0), a perennial Big Ten power, are ranked No. 1 for the fifth consecutive week and boast four individually ranked players and ranked doubles teams. Sophomore Maria Mosolova, ranked No. 2 in singles, leads the way for Northwestern.

Meanwhile, Illinois’ Finnegan, ranked No. 86 in the nation, is 9-3 in duals, primarily at the No. 1 singles spot. Junior Megan Fudge has been riding high for the Illini and will enter Friday’s match at 11-1.

A common theme in practice this week has been to “play to win,” according to Illinois head coach Michelle Dasso.

“We’re not backing off at all. We’re still having really demanding practices and workouts. We’re not satisfied by any means and want to keep improving ourselves.”

Northwestern’s most recent wins came in 7-0 sweeps against conference opponents Michigan State and Wisconsin. The Wildcats suffered their only loss against then-No. 6 Duke on Feb. 28. Although it’s early in the Big Ten schedule, Northwestern and Illinois are the only teams standing at 2-0.

Illinois trails Northwestern 39-7 in the all-time series, with the last Illini victory coming in April 2004. The two teams met twice last season, with Illinois losing 7-0 in dual play and 4-0 in the Big Ten semifinals.

“I remember going into it a little nervous,” McCarthy said. “But afterwards we were really happy with our performance and excited to get out there the next year and do better.

“Obviously if you see 7-0, you think we didn’t do so well. But if you looked at the individual match scores, you’ve seen how close it got.”

The Illini are looking forward to attracting a pro-Illinois crowd in Evanston, as four players have family in the area. Following Friday’s match, Illinois will move north to play No. 72 Wisconsin (5-7, 0-1) in Madison, Wis. on Sunday.

The Badgers owned a three-match winning streak before being swept by Northwestern last weekend. Although the Badgers lead the Illini in the all-time series, 21-13, they have fallen to the Illini in the last three seasons.

When asked what the No. 1 team should expect from the Illini, Dasso stressed tenacity.

“We don’t give up,” Dasso said. “Every single person at every single position isn’t going to roll over. Sometimes you will face teams that lose the first set and die or fizzle. If anything, our team is the opposite. If we lose the first set we get tougher.”