After a convincing 5-1 victory over fifth-seeded Tufts on Friday, May 3, third-seeded Middlebury suffered a heartbreaking 4-5 loss against eventual champion Williams in an epic five-hour battle on Saturday, May 4 in the NESCAC semifinals.
The Panthers now sit at 18-4 on the season and are ranked 11th in the country in the latest poll. Despite the loss, the squad received an at-large bid to the NCAA championships.
In contrast to the regular season match when the Panthers squeezed out a tight 5-4 win, the Middlebury men did not give the Jumbos any breathers. The first and third double pairs cruised to quick victories while junior Brantner Jones ’14, first-year Jackson Frons ’16 and sophomore Courtney Mountifield ’15 carried the momentum and stormed to two-set wins.
The much-anticipated contest on Saturday between the two NESCAC powerhouses was arguably the best match that the Middlebury men have played thus far this season. The team showed themselves to be much improved from the 2-7 loss in the first meeting between the Panthers and the Ephs two weeks before.
With its upperclassmen-filled lineup, Williams has been tapped by many as one of the favorites in the NCAA field this year.
On Saturday morning at Amherst, the Panthers started out well in doubles play. The top pair of juniors Alex Johnston ’14 and Andrew Lebovitz surged to an early 3-0 lead by breaking their opponents’ serve from the get-go.
Meanwhile, on court three, the hard-serving duo of senior tri-captain Spencer Lunghino ’13 and first-year Palmer Campbell ’16 had a 2-0 upper hand.
On the next court, the number-two doubles pair of juniors Brantner Jones ’14 and James Burke ’14 fell into an early 2-5 hole. That combo fought hard but was defeated by the score of 4-8. Immediately following that, both the top and the third Middlebury doubles pairs held their service games to notch the win in the identical score of 8-5.
“One doubles keeps getting better and better as Alex gains volley and overhead skills, is serving smarter and [Lebovitz] is more and more consistent overall and is also competing better as he matures as a player,” said head coach Bob Hansen. “Third doubles also looked great.”
The Middlebury men headed into singles play with a confidence-boosting 2-1 lead, and were looking to expand upon that lead against their conference rival.
Just two weeks before, the Panthers fell at all three doubles spots against the Ephs. The reshuffling of the doubles lineup and the intense work in preparation for the NESCAC championships proved to be the key of this big jump.
In singles play, Campbell went down rather quickly in the score of 2-6, 0-6 in a faceoff against Williams junior Felix Sun.
The 2012 NESCAC Player of the Year. Sun’s crafty play and accurate passing shots proved to be effective against Campbell’s aggressive game, as Campbell had severe difficulties in trying to consistently finish points against the relentless Sun.
Playing next to Campbell at the number-two spot was Jones. Similar to his teammate, Jones encountered much resilience from Williams senior Matt Micheli. Micheli handled Jones’s penetrating groundstrokes with his counter-punching style by hitting shots with great depth. Jones tried staying on the court for as long as possible but eventually succumbed to a 3-6 2-6 decision.
With the Panthers trailing 2-3, all eyes turned to court six. Mountifield gave one of his best performances. Perhaps more impressively, this was Mountifield’s very first dual match against an opponent from a top-15 team. His steady groundstrokes and quick movement gave senior Eph Dylan Page trouble. Despite falling to a 0-3 setback in the second set, Mountifield remained calm and crawled back to pronounce a two-set 6-2 6-3 victory.
“I dealt with the pressure by taking it one point at a time and telling myself that my teammates will support me no matter what the outcome of the match is,” said Mountifield. “My teammates are my biggest source of motivation. I would play for 10 hours if it meant getting them a point on the board. It felt great to clinch the Tufts match, but it felt even better knowing I took out a [Williams] Eph.”
Set at three all, courts one, four and five all went into third sets. At the fourth spot, first-year Jackson Frons ’16 managed to find his groove late in the game. He came back to snatch the second set 6-4 after a 1-6 deficit in the opening set. Both Frons and his opponent gave everything they had on the court. The lengthy exchanges from both sides of the net propelled the final set to progress into a tiebreaker. Unfortunately, Frons was downed by Chow in the score of 6-7 (2-7).
At this point, the Panthers needed to win the remaining two matches in order to win overall.
Senior tri-captain Lunghino did not disappoint. By coming into the net and putting away volleys, he battled back from a tough tiebreaker loss in the first set to seize the remaining two sets 6-3 6-2.
With the contest frozen at 4-4, the task fell onto the shoulders of number-one player Johnston. Even though he was topped 2-6 early on, he displayed great fight in the second set to win in a tiebreaker 7-6 (7-4). However, as the match came down to the wire, Eph senior Trey Meyer broke Johnston’s service game to take the set 6-3 and earn the necessary fifth point for the Purple Cows.
Coach Hansen saw a lot of positives from the play of his team against Williams.
“No question we are getting closer and closer to our best lineup,” he said. “Spencer had a great win at four where we got crushed a few weeks back, Jackson lost breaker in the third where we were beat 3,1 a few weeks back and Courtney came through at six where we were beat in straight sets [in the last match].”
After the loss to Williams, the Panthers have now lost three of their last six matches to end the regular season, including a loss to third-ranked Amherst and a pair of losses to the sixth-ranked Ephs.
With less than two weeks left for the 2013 squad, Hansen decided to make one final change to his team’s starting lineup.
“We will continue to work on our doubles this week in particular at [second doubles] where we will have a new team with Teddy Fitzgibbons [’14] joining Brantner.”
The Middlebury men will host a regional for the NCAA tournament, where they will open up tournament play on Saturday, May 11. The Panthers will take on the winner of a match between Drew and Farmingdale, who play in the opening match of the regional on Friday, May 10.
“I am getting more and more clear about what each individual needs to work on so practices are getting more focused and productive,” said Hansen.
The Panthers enter the tournament as the nation’s 11th-ranked team. Neither of their possible regional opponents is ranked in the top 30 nationally.