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A tough Big Ten schedule awaits IU



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Junior Natalie Whalen shakes hands with her opponent after her 6-4, 7-6 win over Western Michigan University on Jan. 20. Whalen was the only IU player to win her match Saturday at No. 5 Northwestern.  Sam House Buy Photos

IU is taking on the the role of underdog as it heads into Big Ten play.

The Hoosiers have a grueling three-game road swing to start conference schedule. IU faces opponents ranked in the top ten in its first two matches of conference play.

IU faces No. 6 Illinois on Saturday and No. 8 Northwestern on March 17.

IU Coach Ramiro Azcui said the Hoosiers will have their hands full with three very strong programs, but he would like to steal some wins.

“Right now, I would love to steal two of those three opening Big Ten road matches,” Azcui said. “We have the potential to win and our players are ready and excited. Now, it’s just a matter of going out there and doing it.”

Throughout the first 15 matches of the season, the typical lineup has been junior Madison Appel at the No. 1 spot with sophomore Caitlin Bernard and junior Natalie Whalen alternating between the No. 2 and No. 3 spot. Senior Xiwei Cai and freshmen Jelly Bozovic, Michelle McKamey, and Olga Zavarotnaya are utilized towards the middle and bottom of the lineup in the No. 4 through No. 6 spots.

IU looks for points from its upperclassmen in the three top spots of the lineup, but the freshmen in the latter half of the lineup will need to pick up wins as well.

Even though Appel said they want to win in this opening conference road stretch, she said it is also about getting the freshmen involved and them seeing what conference play is all about.

“They just really don’t know what it’s like because we can’t explain that feeling you get when you play in Big Ten matches,” Appel said. “The freshmen are gonna be in these tight situations and it’s not really something you can explain, it’s something they just need to experience.”

Appel said she remembers last season when IU was tied with Purdue at 3-3, and her victory at No. 1 singles decided the match. She said the freshmen will be in those types of match-clinching situations, and they will learn by experience.

After the opening road matches, IU will host six Big Ten conference games in March and April. Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Purdue, Ohio State, and Penn State will all come to Bloomington. 

Last season, IU was 4-7 in conference play, getting all four of its wins on the road.

Azcui said his team has emphasized playing better at home this season.

“You always want to defend at home and use the home advantage with the fans,” Azcui said. “If we can win at home and steal a couple of road wins, that would be huge.”

IU wraps up Big Ten play on the road in late April at Maryland and Rutgers. IU beat Rutgers 5-2 last season but did not play Maryland. 

The Hoosiers placed 10th out of 14 teams in the Big Ten standings last season, beating Penn State, Purdue, Wisconsin, and Rutgers. After losing to Iowa in the regular season, the Hoosiers beat the Hawkeyes in the first round of the conference tournament and fell to Michigan in the quarterfinals.

This season, Appel’s physical and mental game has matured and the freshman provide strong depth.

Appel said this is the most comfortable she has ever felt going into conference play, and she is more excited than anything else and wants this team to strive to be united.

“We need to come together,” Appel said. “Everyone has done well on their own individually. If we work together in these next few matches, results will come. We just need to find unity early in the Big Ten season rather than later.”

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