Ritter prototype for NU soccer player

Lightly recruited out of New Trier, he's vital cog on Big Ten co-champs heading into conference tourney

Senior Chris Ritter could stand as the archetype for a Northwestern soccer player.

Ritter's New Trier High School teams won state titles his sophomore and senior years, yet college coaches were not clamoring for his services.

"He was a good player, but not the best player on his team," Northwestern coach Tim Lenahan said.

Ritter figures that made him fit right in with the Wildcats.

"We definitely don't get the best players in the country," Ritter said. "But (Lenahan) builds teams so well, with guys who all get along, that we believe what he is selling, and eventually you see it on the field."

That was the case again the season, as the Wildcats (10-4-4) became Big Ten co-champions and earned the second seed for the conference tournament that begins Wednesday at Lakeside Field in Evanston. Northwestern is the tournament host school and the Wildcats meet Ohio State in their 6 p.m. opener.

"Chris's growth as a player here has been fantastic," Lenahan said.

Ritter is a fifth generation Wildcat, a lineage that began with his great-great grandfather, 1899 graduate Clay Buntain. Great grandparents and grandparents on his mother's side had all-Northwestern marriages. Ritter's father, Jay, kept the tradition going with a Northwestern MBA.

For all that, Ritter's first inclination was to eschew NU because it was too close to his Winnetka home. But his mother, Leslie, recalled how excited her son was early in his senior year of high school when he got an email from Northwestern's soccer coaches asking for a commitment.

"I wasn't a highly recruited player," he said. "I kind of came in under the radar."

Ritter has gone on to become a defensive mainstay in the midfield, a starter since the third match of his freshman year. He defends the opponent's best player on set pieces — corner and direct kicks.

Yet the biggest moment of his career – one of the biggest in Northwestern soccer history — was offensive. Last season, he scored the goal at Michigan that gave Northwestern its first regular-season Big Ten title.

The Wildcats followed that with their first conference tourney title and then earned a share of this year's regular-season title with Penn State.

Northwestern could have taken the title outright with a victory instead of a 1-1 tie at Indiana last Thursday.

"It was kind of a bummer," Ritter said. "… (But) that has us coming into the tournament with hunger."

The Wildcats (No. 41 in the RPI rankings) likely need to reach the conference tourney final to assure a spot in the 48-team NCAA tournament. Losses to DePaul, Bradley and Northern Illinois hurt their chances; victories over Notre Dame (No. 1 RPI),Kentucky (26) and Michigan (28) and ties with Indiana (10) and Xavier (35) will help.

Once the season ends, Ritter will decide whether to use the remaining year of eligibility awarded after he missed all but two matches of his sophomore year with a stress fracture in the lower leg. There also is a chance the Fire could offer him a contract under MLS's Home Grown Talent program because Ritter played in the Fire's development academy.

"I've gotten better every year in college, and that won't change," Ritter said. "I know the team will be good next year, so that obviously is an incentive to come back."

Since Lenahan turned around a consistent loser, the Wildcats have been at least good every year since 2003, with six NCAA appearances in the previous eight seasons.

"We're not a flash in the pan," he said.

Even without the flashiest of talent.

phersh@tribune.com

Twitter @olyphil

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