Two chances remain for Rutgers to capture first Big Ten win
It seems like only days ago that the season was a blank page with limitless opportunities for success.
But with this weekend comes the end of the regular season for the Rutgers tennis team, along with the last two chances to capture a Big Ten win.
The Scarlet Knights (6-12, 0-9) will travel to Indiana for back-to-back matches against two more ranked opponents. They are set to face No. 34 Purdue Saturday at noon and No. 52 Indiana in a 10 a.m. on Sunday.
Although the Knights put forth an impressive showing in non-conference play, they have struggled against Big Ten opponents. The season has become one focused on gaining experience and making adjustments.
After dropping its last four matches at home, Rutgers ventured to Illinois last weekend with hope that the trip west would yield different results.
But unfortunately, the Knights suffered much of the same fate, dropping another set of back-to-back matches against No. 21 Northwestern Saturday and Illinois on Sunday.
On Saturday, Rutgers failed to capture the doubles point in a sweep by Wildcats’ powerful duos.
In singles play, the Knights dropped five of six. The lone win came from freshman Chloe Lee who, in a similar fashion to her performance against Wisconsin, put forth a standout performance at the No. 2 spot.
After dropping the first set, she topped Northwestern’s Erin Larner, 4-6, 6-4, 1-0 (10-6) and claimed her third conference victory in singles.
Although Illinois presented the final opportunity for Rutgers to face an unranked opponent, the Knights failed to take advantage.
Succumbing perhaps to the rigorous schedule, Rutgers was swept in both singles and doubles action by the Fighting Illini.
After another disappointing weekend, junior Mariam Zein said the team was eager to get back on the practice court and regroup.
“Last weekend was tough with two losses on the road but we know exactly what we need to work on,” she said. “We’re all excited to have a good week of practice and go into this weekend playing well.”
It has become evident that adjusting to the demanding schedule of the Big Ten is vital to the Knights having a chance at success.
With both matches presenting ranked opponents, this weekend represents an even more difficult prospect for Rutgers.
If they hope to end the regular season on a high note and with a Big Ten win, they will have to successfully battle powerful opponents in Purdue (11-5, 4-3) and Indiana (12-7, 3-4) with less than 24 hours in between.
Head coach Ben Bucca acknowledges that the fast-paced nature of a Big Ten schedule is not to be taken lightly.
“It’s definitely demanding,” he said. “It’s exhausting. I mean, when you add on that the matches themselves are three to three and a half hours of really high level tennis and then you factor in all of the travel and that your schedule is uprooted, and you’re just always on the go. For the 48 hours that we’re traveling, we are constantly busy, there’s no down time. … From our first year in, I can see that this is a challenge that is part of the lure of playing in the Big Ten.”
As to whether the Knights believe that one team offers a better chance at victory, Bucca maintains that both Purdue and Indiana will present a battle.
“I think both teams are of similar skill level and I think both have a pretty long and solid tradition of success within the Big Ten, so it’s going to be a significant challenge for us to be traveling and playing on their home courts,” he said.
Purdue enters off a dominant victory against No. 43 Michigan State at home. While Indiana is coming off a shutout loss to No. 14 Michigan, it will host Maryland. The Terps recently fell out of the Intercollegiate Tennis Association’s top-75 rankings on Saturday before welcoming Rutgers.
Zein notes that there is promise in the fact that the matches present opportunities to right past wrongs against new, unfamiliar opponents.
“I think that we’re excited for the competition because it’s two new schools we get to play and two more opportunities to go out there and really compete and try to pull out wins,” Zein said.
It is an unfortunate reality for the Knights that, with only days left in the season, they will be forced to defeat a ranked opponent if they want to capture that elusive Big Ten win.
But Bucca does not feel that a conference win is the only thing to be gained in their last two matches.
“It's been a significant challenge and we have fought so hard to get that first Big Ten team win,” Bucca said. “If we accomplish it, that would be great but if we don’t, what is really quite frankly of higher significance, is that the team … has really played all of these matches … really putting forth their best effort. So I’m happy for the ladies that they can say that.”
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