Monday, 07 May 2018 02:41

Q&A With Northwestern Head Coach Claire Pollard

Written by Paul Showers
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This year the very successful Northwestern University women’s tennis program looked to do little and started the season unranked.  Head coach Claire Pollard and her Wildcats had won Big Ten titles from 1999-2014 without interruption, 16 consecutive seasons, 16 consecutive Big Ten conference or tournament titles.  With three highly-ranked Big Ten rivals this might have been Pollard's first class to leave NU without a conference trophy. Unranked at the start of the season they proceeded to knock off three top seven teams (Vanderbilt, Georgia Tech, Illinois) in a two-week window and then finished the regular season by winning 16 of their final 17, which also included road wins over Michigan and Ohio State, to win the Big Ten regular season title outright.

The Wildcats came within a whisker of also winning the Big Ten Tournament Championship before falling in a 4-3 heartbreaker to Michigan. The Cats were selected as the No. 14 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament and will host a regional with a first-round match against MAC Champion Buffalo. What follows are some questions and answers that head coach Claire Pollard generously provided for College Tennis Today. 

Q:  Claire, first of all congratulations on an outstanding 2018 season.  Your team started this season unranked before beating SEC champions Vanderbilt, Georgia Tech, and three ranked Big Ten teams to become outright Big Ten champions. What do you think of polls and how did you engineer your team’s mindset to reach up and get those big wins?

CP:  I'm not concerned with opinion and that's all the rankings are at the start of the year.  It’s an impossible task at the start of the year except for a few no brainer teams.  I've always concerned myself with what we can control which is development and getting the most out of ourselves at all times. If we do that, results and rankings will take care of themselves when it really matters (the end of the season).

Nwestern

 

Q:  Your season ended with a tough loss and included a few other close losses that could have gone your way. Be candid, what happened?

CP:  All 5 losses happened for a variety of reasons.  One was we were outplayed in 3 of the losses.  In the other 2  I think we have some regrets. We just didn't control the controllables on our side of the court and between our ears and hopefully we can learn from that.

Q:  If you could control every factor imaginable I am sure you would and your teams would post great results. What are the uncontrollable factors in college sports that drive coaches crazy?

CP:  I think we all forget so easily that we are coaching young players with a lot on the plates still searching for who they really are.  Tennis can expose you a lot and I would love to control the "demons" of each player a little better.  Whether it be being a little bit more focused!  A little less intense!  A better teammate!  A little braver!  A little less self-critical!  A little more self-aware!  A little tougher! A little more selfish! But a lot of times the wisdom you need comes after the fact.  I think its harsh how tough it is for college coaches to always be expected to produce results when we are working with young people who are still finding so much out about themselves.  I also think it is hard for the young people to be held accountable for results more than GPA, and socially conducting themselves appropriately.  In our program we value all this and evaluate our players on so much more than wins and losses.

Q:  How helpful was your team’s preseason trip down under?  What did it add?

CP:  I give our pre-season trip down under a main reason why we have had so much fun this year throughout the entire season. It was a once in a life time experience for many of us and one we look back on dearly. Our chemistry this year has been outstanding and I give Julie Byrne a ton of credit for bringing her fun, easy going personality and shining it though our program and team.  I think our girls are really appreciative of what NU and our boosters did for them in terms of the trip to Australia.  They have worked hard on the courts at practice and in matches to show their gratitude.

 

NU AUSSIE

 

Q:  To a biased observer it appeared like there was more smiling in team huddles and even on court this year. How do you keep eight hungry competitive athletes on the same page?

CP:  It takes everyone involved in your team to make it a success. We keep our inner circle very close knit and we have embraced the strengths and weaknesses of us all.  

Q:  Multiple players came up big and closed out matches for the Wildcats this season. What do you tell your team before big matches against great teams? Are there general things and specific things for each match?

CP:  Not a lot needs to be said when a big match comes around. With all the social media there are no secrets any more. The girls have embraced all the big matches and tried to leave it all on the courts.  Almost every time we did this exceptionally well this year.

Q: Claire, you are a DI doubles champion, you have coached two teams to doubles DI titles and your team again this year won doubles regularly. Your teams don’t generally play one up one back. What are the keys to doubles success?

CP:  There's no question that doubles is more tricky than ever before.  The shortened format has challenged us all. Yet I firmly believe the better team will win more often than not so we have embraced the idea of playing great right from the start and embraced the sense of urgency you have to play with. I love the tactical essence of the game of tennis and I believe we bring a good tactical base to our doubles performances.

Q:  This year your team’s biggest wins came at home indoors, can your team catch up and continue to develop and win more big matches outside in the post season?

CP:  Sure we did have our big wins inside and we enjoyed great home support.  But the whole country is playing more indoor tennis so we all have to adapt.  We certainly might have to do it a little bit more than others but OSU showed last season a Big Ten team can challenge for an NCAA team title and we hope to do that too.

 

NW

 

Q:  Alex Chatt came back from match points to win the big match this year against Michigan. You have three seniors playing their best tennis and still all very committed, Maddie Lipp staying and playing as a fifth year senior. How do you keep veteran players motivated?

CP:  Each year presents a unique challenge for the players. Sure some seniors are ready for it to be over, but on the whole I see seniors as the leaders embracing their last go around. Our seniors epitomize that. They are hungry and keen to leave their imprint on the program.  

Q:  Next year those three seniors are going to be sadly missing and NU will likely drop out of the preseason poll again. Is there anything you might want to suggest to the pollsters who might be checking out this site?

CP:  We have recruited well and firmly believe that although we lose three legends we have the next batch of legends ready to keep us competing with the very best.  Again we will focus on development and getting better and the results and rankings will take care of itself

 

 
Photos/Video via Northwestern Sports

 

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