Men’s Tennis Bests Trinity, Wesleyan en Route to 13-1 Start


Top singles player Alex Johnston ’14 prepares to hit a forehand. Johnston collected a pair of wins as his team improved to 13-1 on the season.

By Lok Sze Leung

The Middlebury men’s tennis team is the ninth-ranked team in the country after starting 13-1 on the season thus far. This past weekend, April 6 and 7, the Panthers scored a pair of victories over Wesleyan and Trinity. In addition, the team concluded its week-long spring recess trip to Southern California by winning eight of the 10 contests, losing only to top-ranked Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (CMS) and to Ventura College in an unrecorded match.

On Saturday, despite a 7-2 verdict, the men saw unanticipated resistance from Wesleyan. The Cardinals managed to pull out victories in the no. 1 and no. 2 doubles matches. However, they were no match to the Panthers in singles, as Middlebury snatched wins on all six courts in singles, including a three-set conquest by junior Brantner Jones ’14 at the second singles match.

After some reshuffling in the doubles lineup, the team had a decisive 8-1 sweep over 28th-ranked Trinity on Sunday. The doubles duos of Alex Johnston ’14 and Andrew Lebovitz ’14 and James Burke ’14 and Jones handled their opponents with relative ease in the first and second doubles matches, respectively. Senior tri-captain Will Oberrender ’13 and Chris Frost ’15, meanwhile rallied to a tight 9-7 victory in the third doubles slot.

The team then won five of its six singles matches. First-year Ari Smolyar ’16 proved his ability and competitiveness, dropping just two games in the fourth singles match. Classmate Allen Jackson ’16 went through a see-saw battle before falling 4-6, 4-6 at the no. 5 spot. Relying on his lengthy strokes, fellow first-year Jackson Frons ’16 seized a victory in a 10-point super-tiebreaker after splitting the first two sets.

The Panthers’ run in California was highlighted by their four clashes against top-25 teams, including 10th-ranked UC Santa Cruz, 12th-ranked Redlands, number 24 Pomona-Pitzer, and CMS, which tops the national polls.

The team’s encounter with UC Santa Cruz on March 24 was an emotional one for head coach Bob Hansen, who was the head coach of the Banana Slugs tennis program for 30 years before making his way to Middlebury two years ago.

In contrast to the final score of 8-1, each of the matches came down to the wire. After taking two of the tree doubles matches, juniors Zach Bruchmiller ’14 and Jones both recorded quick two-set victories. Yet the Panthers faced much resilience from the spirited Banana Slugs as all four remaining singles matches went into third sets. Eventually, the combined determination and fight of Johnston, first-year Palmer Campbell ’16, tri-captain Spencer Lunghino ’13 and Teddy Fitzgibbons ’14 propelled the team to victory.

Two days later, the squad faced Redlands in a tricky environment on the Bulldogs’ home turf. In doubles play, Fitzgibbons and Lebovitz were the only Middlebury pair to come out on top, with an 8-4 win. And despite Jones’s dominant performance in the no. 2 singles match, both Johnston and Lunghino succumbed to two gusty opponents.

At this point, the Middlebury men knew they would need to take the three remaining singles matches in order to win. With his consistent groundstrokes and exceptional willpower, Fitzgibbons counterpunched to a 6-4, 6-3 victory, leaving the job of completing the comeback with Campbell and Bruchmiller. Both Panthers exhibited remarkable mental toughness as they rode the momentum of one another’s matches and pulled off the tremendous comeback. Soon after Campbell’s 6-4 win in the third set, Bruchmiller gave Middlebury the fifth point in a thrilling 7-4 tiebreaker in the deciding set. The squad had its first 5-4 triumph of the season.

The Panthers then faced the Sagehens of Pomona, a traditional West Coast tennis powerhouse. At Pomona’s Pauley Tennis Complex, doubles contests were close throughout. The big-serving pair of Johnston and Lunghino as well as the combination of Fitzgibbons and Lebovitz were winners in a pair of tiebreakers as Middlebury swept the three matches.

There were a lot of tight sets in singles play, as well. Campbell pulled out a 6-4 7-6 (4) decision, while Jones went down against an in-form regionally ranked player. At the top spot, however, Johnston did not give his opponent any breathing space as he pounced on a 6-3 6-0 verdict, cementing the Panthers’ 8-1 victory.

In the final match of the trip, CMS backed up its number one ranking by taking all three doubles points and five of the six singles matches. The Middlebury men fought hard, but were unable to turn the table as they suffered a 8-1 loss, their first this season to a Division III foe. Campbell was the lone bright spot that night. After trading blows for more than an hour-and-a-half, he squeezed out a three-set victory. Johnston and Fitzgibbons, meanwhile, suffered heartbreaking losses. Johnston went down in the third-set super tiebreaker while Fitzgibbons was defeated by a two-point margin in the tiebreaker of the final set.

“We are happy with some of our good performances in California and are looking forward to the upcoming conference matches,” said Lunghino.

Due to the cancelation of a much-anticipated clash with NESCAC rivals, and sixth-ranked Bowdoin, the Panthers will return to action when they travel to Waterville, Maine to play Colby on Sunday, April 14.