Heuser’s heroics lead Illinois women’s tennis to crucial Big Ten victory over Northwestern

On Sunday in its last home match of the regular season, Illinois women’s tennis managed a memorable Big Ten win over in-state rival Northwestern at home on senior day.

The Illini and the Wildcats share a rivalry that needs no introduction. In a week that saw the two schools face off across a variety of different sports, it was women’s tennis that would close out rivalry week in Champaign-Urbana.

“It was awesome,” head coach Evan Clark said. “So, so proud of the girls and happy for them. (With) close matches against really good teams this year, we’ve struggled to get over the hump. Today, we got over the hump even though it didn’t look like we were going to at times. To our team’s credit, we found that extra layer. ”

Historically, it’s been the Wildcats who have gotten the best of the Illini more times than not, but this is a trend that is facing a change. Having beaten Northwestern in Evanston last season, Illinois went into Sunday’s match prepared to defend the Atkins Tennis Center in a clash between two of the top teams in the Big Ten. Heading into the noon showdown, Illinois sat in fourth place while Northwestern held second place in the conference.

It was time for the next massive installation of the Illini-Wildcat rivalry to begin.

Doubles play kicked off poorly for the Illini as the Wildcats took Court 1 early. Sophomore Kate Duong and freshman Megan Heuser were defeated 6-2 by Clarissa Hand and Maria Shusharina. The Illini began a resurgence on the remaining courts that excited the fans, but the comeback was unable to be completed as junior team Emily Casati and freshman Kasia Treiber suffered a close 7-5 defeat to Briana Crowley and Christina Hand. The duo of juniors Josie Frazier and Ashley Yeah were up 6-5 at the time of stoppage. Illinois 0-1 Northwestern heading into singles play.

Singles play also got off to a nerve-racking start for the Illini as Casati was taken down on Court 6 by a 6-0, 6-1 score to Justine Leong. The Wildcats had obtained their second point of the match in dominant fashion, and only needed two more wins to clinch the win. Illinois, on the other hand, needed four victories against a strong Northwestern team. Illinois 0-2 Northwestern.

A door of opportunity opened as Duong managed to defend Illinois’ Court 1 against No. 110 Clarissa Hand. The massive 6-2, 7-5, victory was exactly what Illini needed to get back into the match. Duong put in a top performance to achieve her win and was sharp until the end to put her team on the board. Yeah then leveled the contest with a crucial triumph on Court 2 over Shusharina. Despite being down 4-0 at one point in the first set, Yeah managed a incredible turnaround, winning six straight sets to win the first. She then went on to win the match 6-4, 7-5 for the Illini’s second point of the match. Illinois 2-2 Northwestern.

The Wildcats quickly regained the lead as Court 3 finished play. Frazier was defeated 6-4, 6-2 to Sydney Pratt, meaning Illinois could not afford to lose another match. Two straight wins were needed as the remaining matches on Courts 4 and 5 were in the midst of being played out. Illinois 2-3 Northwestern.

Treiber, who has a tendency of providing the Illini with crucial points late in the contest, delivered once again and came out on top against Christina Hand. The 6-4, 2-6, 6-1 victory on Court 5 leveled the match once again as all eyes turned to the final court. Illinois 3-3 Northwestern.

On Court 4, it was Heuser and Ema Lazic battling out what would be the deciding point. With the electric atmosphere and incredible support from both Illini fans and the men’s tennis team, it was all up to the freshman to clutch the winning point for Illinois.

And Heuser did not disappoint.

“Honestly, after I lost the second set I knew it was going to come down to me,” Heuser said. ‘I was looking at the scoreboard and was like,’ whoa, it’s gonna be pretty split. ‘ I knew I had to start the third set off strong. ”

In a day that she probably won’t forget anytime soon, Heuser managed to hold her nerve in a tense third set finale in front of the Illini faithful. While Lazic was able to provide a scare by winning a few games in the third set, Heuser rallied and closed out the exciting match for the Illini. Final score: Illinois 4, Northwestern 3.

“I was freaking out,” Heuser said. ‘I was like’ oh my God, this is really about to happen. ‘ Thinking about last year even though I wasn’t here, it’s crazy that it was a repeat. A freshman clinched last year and a freshman clinched this year, it’s crazy. ”

With all the pressure on her back and every pair of eyes in the building focused on Court 4, Heuser’s ability to remain calm and focused with everything on the line was incredible to witness. In only her first year, Heuser managed to prove that she is capable of clutching wins at important moments. Heuser also claimed Illinois’ second consecutive win over Northwestern and in the process boosted the team to third in the Big Ten standings. And as an added bonus, Heuser and the Illini forced the Wildcats to drop to fourth place.

“We wanted to win so badly,” Heuser said. “We had just come off a bad loss against Penn State which was really unfortunate, so this was key for us. We’re playing at home, the (men’s tennis team) came out to watch us, it’s senior day, so nothing gets better than that. Playing on your home courts, playing in front of Champaign-Urbana and everyone that comes to support was such a special moment for me, especially as a freshman. ”

Rivalry week has been a successful one across sports for Illinois, and the women’s tennis team helped in completing the athletic sweep of the Wildcats. With home turf properly defended, the Illini faithful can finally exhale. Northwestern will be heading back to Evanston after enduring a winless period in Urbana-Champaign.

Illinois (14-7 overall, 7-2 B1G) will be on the road next week against Michigan (14-5 overall, 8-1 B1G) on Friday, followed by a trip to Michigan State (9-11 overall, 1- 8 B1G) on Sunday.

“Credit to Megan for finishing off a tough situation,” Clark said. “And proud of the team. They’ve worked really, really hard and we’ve been really close against good teams this year, so to beat Northwestern, which is our rival and a perennial Big Ten powerhouse, it’s a great feeling. “

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