Another nationally-ranked team, another disheartening loss. The Big Ten is filled with challenging opponents, and the Rutgers tennis team is winless in conference play through five games.
Facing yet another top-tier team in the nation, the Scarlet Knights (8-7, 0-5) lost 6-1 to No. 36 Illinois (7-9, 2-2) in Champaign, Illinois.
The lone individual win of the match came from freshman Sydney Kaplan’s comeback win in her singles match as the No. 4 seed for Rutgers. The Montebello, New York native overcame a 6-2 loss in the first set to rally a dominating 6-1, 6-2 in final two sets against the Fighting Illini’s Sasha Belaya.
The match marks Kaplan’s first conference win of her collegiate career, and it certainly won’t be the last.
“The biggest thing that helped me the most was my attitude,” Kaplan said. “I was positive, in the moment and overall, so excited to be playing.”
In doubles action, Illinois easily took the early lead as the Knights lost at the No. 2 and 3 positions. The duo of team captains sophomore Maya Jacobs and junior Jaci Cochrane fell 6-3, while Kaplan and sophomore Isabelle Da Silva went winless in a 6-0 loss to the Illini's Asuka Kawai and Mia Rabinowitz.
Junior Kat Muzik and freshman Tess Fisher rallied to 4-4, against Jaclyn Switkes and Sasha Belaya, before the match was left unfinished when Illinois claimed the other doubles matches.
Luck was not in Rutgers’ hands in singles action either this time around.
First were Cochrane and Jacobs. Going in as the Knights’ No. 1 seed, Jacobs was no match to the Illini’s lone nationally-ranked singles player No. 54 Asuka Kawai. The battle for the top of the column left Jacobs in the dust as she fell 6-0, 6-3 to Kawai.
No. 5 seed Cochrane walked off the court in a separate manner, falling in sets of 6-1, 6-3 to Illinois’ Emilee Duong.
From a 6-0 loss in the first set, Da Silva had a huge turnaround in her second set to try and push her match through to a third set, but ultimately lost 7-5 to close out at the No. 6 spot.
Muzik and Fisher were also on the struggle bus, but put up a good fight to close out their individual matches. No. 2 seed Muzik lost identical sets of 6-3, 6-3 to Rabinowitz. On another court, Fisher was able to notch a couple of more points, but still fell 6-4, 6-4 to Switkes.
Even though Rutgers lost to the Illini, there are some hopeful notes to consider. Each of the Knights had stronger second sets, which means they know how to close. If they are able to storm away with wins on the front end of their match, they’ve got a better chance of keeping their momentum rolling for the rest of it.
“As a team, we need to keep being aggressive and staying positive and having high energy," Kaplan said. "We need to go into next weekend with great attitudes and be ready to play."
How Rutgers fares in the Big Ten will show next weekend. The Knights will catch another flight out west to play Iowa on Friday at 3 p.m. and Nebraska on Sunday at 9 a.m.
Squished between the Hawkeyes (9-8, 1-4) and the Cornhuskers (8-13, 0-5), Rutgers has a chance to defeat two Big Ten teams in their respective home courts. The Knights will really have a shot against Nebraska, who also hasn’t won a conference match this season.
In its past four matches, Iowa lost three of them to the Big Ten, but are coming off a 4-1 win over Purdue. Nebraska has racked up a seven-game losing streak with five of them being Big Ten matches.
Since the Cornhuskers are facing Maryland on Friday, Nebraska will be in the same boat as Rutgers heading into Sunday’s match. Whether the Knights will be able to come back with a conference road match would be a huge bonus for Rutgers trying to make the Big Ten Tournament.
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