Freshmen to get full Big Ten experience for rest of season

Freshman tennis player Rachael White has heard from her elder teammates that the conference season is the most fun part of the dual season — the match atmosphere is different, and the Big Ten rivalries bring a whole new feeling.

And with only conference matches remaining on the schedule, starting with the matchup against No. 42 Purdue (13-1, 1-1 Big Ten) on Sunday at home, White and freshman Breanne Smutko get to experience fully what all the talk is about.

No. 37 Illinois (8-7, 2-1) is more than halfway through its dual season, and by now, head coach Michelle Dasso said that everyone on her team should be on the same page and know what they all need to do to pull out wins.

“We have two freshmen in our lineup from the very first match till now,” Dasso said. “Now, they know what it’s about. They know what they need to do.”

Though entering the season with high expectations, especially being nationally ranked at No. 33 and starting at the No. 1 singles, White has fallen out of the ranking radar and started at No. 3 singles for the first time last Friday.

“I didn’t think much about it because it’s still a pretty high spot, and I was a little glad because I wanted to get a win in because I didn’t really have as many,” said White about playing at the No. 3 spot against College of Charleston. “I had a pretty good shot at winning, so I felt pretty comfortable.”

“I’m only a freshman,” added White, who is 4-10 in singles. “I’ve had ups and downs before, so I’m not too worried about it. I still have a lot of time left. I’m just looking forward to the rest of the season and looking forward to stepping it up a lot more.”

As a team, Illinois knows it can’t lose any more tight matches. The Illini have only won one of five 4-3 matches against higher-ranked opponents.

With the remaining matches counting toward its conference record, Illinois has no room for regrets.

“We’ve been there in those matches where we lost 4-3,” said junior Leigh Finnegan, who is part of the No. 50-ranked doubles tandem with senior Megan Fudge.

Purdue, which is riding a four-match winning streak, has lost two of the last three matches against Illinois by a 4-3 score. No. 110 sophomore Jennifer Rabot leads the Boilermakers and is 14-0 at the No. 2 singles spot, while Fudge is ranked No. 106.

“They’re going to be itching to try and get us at 4-3, and it’s going to be a battle,” Dasso said. “We got to be prepared and focused, and hopefully we’ll get to play outside. I can’t imagine we will have a big crowd because it’s Easter Sunday, but that’s just kind of how it works out all the time.”