‘We can beat anyone on any given day’: Illinois women’s tennis achieves winning season with young team

Following a mixed season last year that saw the team go 9-9 overall, Illinois women’s tennis came into the 2021–22 season looking to not only improve upon the year prior but also build toward the future with a younger squad of players. The Illini’s story this season was one made up of challenges on the road and unrelenting dominance at home. So how did everything play out?

Illinois kicked off the 2022 spring season in January with a split weekend away in Las Vegas. Despite dropping the opening match against No. 11 Baylor by a 6-1 setback, the team rebounded a day later to claim its first win of the year against BYU by a 5-2 score.

The Illini then returned home to Urbana for a three-game home stretch. Atkins Tennis Center was the witness of countless Illinois victories this year, and this trend began with a commanding 7-0 victory over Harvard. The victory was celebrated with fans for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic, and junior Ashley Yeah described that, “It’s definitely great to be back after more than a year without fans,” in an interview conducted after the match.

Illinois then capped off the short spurt of home matches by defeating Eastern Illinois by the same 7-0 scoreline, followed by a 4-0 victory over Chicago State.

Finding themselves sitting with a strong 4-1 record at this point, the Illini traveled south for the ITA Kickoff Weekend in Tallahassee, Fla. It ended up being a difficult weekend as Illinois went winless, suffering defeats to No. 18 Florida State and Florida International by 4-3 and 4-2 scorelines, respectively.

The Illini shook off these losses and began the month of February on a strong note. Illinois returned to Atkins and blanked in-state rival Illinois State 7-0. The team would sweep Missouri 4-0 a week later in the Braggin ‘Rights match, followed by a nervy 4-2 victory over Cornell to finish the month undefeated.

March opened less than stellar for the Illini, who suffered two early losses away. The team was unable to overcome Kansas or No. 3 Oklahoma, losing 4-0 to both. Illinois then returned home for the rest of the month as Big Ten conference play got underway. The team split the opening weekend, defeating Minnesota 4-1 before suffering its first and only home loss of the season to Wisconsin by a 5-2 deficit.

The Illini picked up steam during the end of March and into early April. Illinois took down Maryland 4-3 and Rutgers 7-0 before traveling to Iowa and Nebraska, where it defeated both by 4-2 and 4-3 scores, respectively. After earning a 4-2 home victory over Purdue the following week, Illinois’ winning streak came to an end when it was upset by a narrow 4-3 score while away against Penn State.

The final matches of the regular season saw Illinois claim an exciting 4-3 victory over rival Northwestern in what was not only the team’s final regular season match, but also senior day for senior Shivani Ingle. Freshman Megan Heuser was able to hold her nerve and win the clinching point to give the Illini the victory over the Wildcats.

Illinois then spent the final weekend in Michigan, where it would lose 4-1 to No. 23 Michigan before winning its last match 4-1 against Michigan State.

The Illini played two matches in the postseason – both in the Big Ten tournament. Illinois managed a narrow 4-3 victory in the second round against Iowa before bowing out of the competition in the quarterfinals following a 4-1 defeat against Wisconsin. Illinois’ season ended there after not receiving an invitation to the NCAA Tournament.

Illinois finished with a 16-9 overall record, an 8-3 conference record and a fourth place finish in the Big Ten standings. Needless to say the team was much improved from the year prior, as they managed to achieve the winning season they’d missed out on previously. All in all, there were many bright spots for the Illini to look back upon from the 2021–22 campaign.

For one, Illinois’ 11-1 home record was astonishing to witness. The team’s resilience was many times on full display at Atkins this year. Although the Illini have room to improve when it comes to playing on the road, the confidence they had defending their home courts was impossible to question.

“We’re comfortable on our courts,” said head coach Evan Clark following the victory against Missouri. “It’s just great playing at home. We’re out here every day, so of course we have the home-court advantage. The girls are super comfortable with the crowd, and everything kind of falls into place at home. “

Additionally, Illinois’ fourth place finish in the Big Ten was a great improvement on its seventh place finish the year prior. The Illini remained competitive at the top of the standings, and their 8-3 conference record highlighted how different of a team they were from even last season, where they went 8-8 in the Big Ten.

“It certainly shows our team that we’re at the top,” Clark said following the win against Northwestern. “We can beat anyone on any given day.”

The Illini had veteran players such as Yeah and junior Josie Frazier step up in the important conference matches, and sophomore Kate Duong was also an instrumental part of the team’s success. Defending Illinois ‘Court 1 in both doubles and singles play, Duong’s victories against other schools’ best players were incredibly vital to the team’s Big Ten campaign this season.

Illinois saw these three players decorated over the course of the season. In terms of All-Conference awards, Duong earned All-Big Ten honors and Frazier was the Illini’s Sportsmanship Award honoree in the Big Ten. During the run of the season, both Yeah and Duong earned Big Ten Women’s Tennis Athlete of the Week honors on separate occasions.

Regarding the future of the program, it was huge that the three freshmen the Illini welcomed in at the start of the season all turned out to be major successes. Megan Heuser, Kasia Treiber and Kida Ferrari joined the ranks and quickly proved they were starter-worthy very early on.

All three players had highlights from this year, whether it was Heuser’s heroics against Northwestern, Treiber’s clutch ability to win the Illini crucial late points or Ferrari outscoring opponents 24-1 during the doubleheader day. Illinois needed to find talented players to fill in the gaps of the four graduating seniors from last year’s class, and it found them in Heuser, Treiber and Ferrari.

Overall, the 2021–22 season was a triumphant one for Illinois women’s tennis. With the freshman exceeding expectations, Duong holding down the top courts for Illinois in just her second year and the juniors all continuing to put in veteran-level performances, the team is looking set for a very bright future. While they missed out the NCAA Championships this year, potential tournament appearances down the line should come as no surprise to anyone following this talented, young Illini team. The program is in great hands as they aim for both conference and national triumphs in the years to come.

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