No. 3 Men’s, No. 4 Women’s Tennis Teams Start Strong, Sights Firmly Set on National Titles


Both the men’s and women’s tennis teams started the spring season on a high note last weekend, Saturday, March 10, and Sunday, March 11. And both teams have a lot to be excited about in 2018.

The ITA Division III men’s national team rankings have the Middlebury men at No. 3, as per the Thursday, March 1, release. The ITA’s latest women’s rankings, from Thursday, March 8, placed the Middlebury women at No. 4. It’s no wonder the programs are ranked so high to begin the year; last season saw both teams lose in tight Nescac championship matches, which they followed with deep NCAA tournament runs. The men’s side made it all the way to the semifinal before losing a heartbreaker to Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, and the women lost an equally tight 5–4 contest to Nescac foe Williams in the same round.

Both teams were then well represented at the NCAA singles and doubles championships in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which was highlighted by the performances of Lubo Cuba ’19 and Will de Quant ’18. Cuba became the first Panther in the history of the tennis program to win the NCAA singles national title. He then teamed up with de Quant to earn the first NCAA doubles national title in the tennis program’s history. Add to that a handful of talented first-year additions for the men, some of whom are already seeing important match time, and a large sophomore contingent with a year of experience under their belts for the women. 2015 USTA/ITA DIII national champion Noah Farrell ’18 also returns to boost the men’s team lineup.

The track record and the strides the teams have made in preparation for the season has things looking up for the Middlebury tennis program. Both teams look once again poised to make deep runs and seek revenge this spring.

Men’s team captain Timo van der Geest ’18 said the offseason was good in that it got the team, and the upperclassman leadership, to step up and commit to improving their games.

“The offseason was a time where there is a bit of a greater emphasis on upperclassman leadership,” said van der Geest, one the men’s team’s three senior captains. “Without having the coaches around, it was a good opportunity for us again to prove how committed we are and [to show] what we want this tennis program to be about.”

The men’s team started off Sunday with a 7–2 triumph over 19th-ranked Bates. Middlebury lost two tight matches in the middle of the singles lineup, including a three-setter that ended in a tiebreaker at van der Geest’s No. 3 singles spot. Cuba and senior Kyle Schlanger ’18 had important wins at the singles No. 1 and No. 2. Cuba actually managed to bounce back and win his match in the third set after dropping the middle set 6–0 to Bates’ No. 1, Ben Rosen.

“My second set was tough,” said Cuba. “My opponent played well, and I was struggling to find my game.”

What changed in the third set was Cuba’s approach against Rosen: “The only thing I changed in the third set was my energy. I stuck with my original game plan of moving him around the court and staying aggressive and tracking well while showing some more positive emotion. I think this made a big difference.”

To go along with their solid performance in the singles competition, the Panthers dominated in doubles, where they swept Bates convincingly.

Also impressive was the performance of the men’s first-years on Sunday. Andre Xiao ’21 and Nate Eazor ’21 both notched their first wins of the spring and their first team match win as Panthers. This marks the second year in a row the men have dominated Bates in such fashion, after an 8–1 win last year.

“The first match is definitely a bit of a different one,” said van der Geest, “as we haven’t played against other teams in a very long time. It was awesome opening the season at home again, like we do every year. Our indoor courts give us an extra bit of confidence going into our first game, since we have spent a fair amount of time there practicing.”

Cuba, the individual national champion, said that the captain was right in saying the first match is different, but he added that nerves certainly played into it.

“There were definitely some nerves associated with the match,” Cuba said. “However, we’ve been training hard all offseason, and we recognize the work we put in, so I don’t think nerves necessarily affected our playing. I think we were more excited than anything to finally be competing and getting a win under our belt.”

The men followed this performance up with a convincing 9–0 victory over unranked Babson. Middlebury didn’t drop a set in the entire match against the Beavers, which featured seven 6–0 or 8–0 sets by six different players.

With their opening-weekend performance, the Panthers certainly look like a group that teams will have to go through if they want a shot at the national title come May. Middlebury certainly legitimized their preseason No. 3 national ranking and No. 1 regional ranking and will be the team to beat in the Nescac.

“I don’t think our high national ranking from last year makes a difference in terms of how we approach our games,” van der Geest asserted. “At the most, it will give us extra confidence going into matches, but at the time of playing, every game we’ll play this spring will just be another individual game during which rankings don’t matter.”

It was trial by fire to start the season for the women’s team, as the Panthers headed to Medford, Massachusetts, to take on a fierce opponent in No. 7 Tufts last Saturday, March 10. Nonetheless, the Panthers persevered and left Medford with a 6–3 victory.

“It feels great to kick start the season with a big win,” said Catherine Blayze ’20. “Tufts is a great team and came out very strong from the moment we stepped on the court. Of course we all were a little nervous, as it was our first match of the season, but we carried ourselves well.”

The Panthers have a bright future ahead of them — without any seniors, five sophomores and just one junior played last Saturday. Nevertheless, the team is focused on the here and now, and for good reason. Despite their relative youth, they enter the year with a No. 4 national ranking, which bodes well for a strong season. However, a strong Williams team that beat them last year in the Nescac tournament final and then went on to win the national championship looms at No. 2 in the nation.

“After winter break, we knew we had a little more than a month to make huge pushes in terms of fitness. This showed up this weekend,” Stowe said. “When a couple of us were down first sets we reminded ourselves we could play all day if that’s what it took. The cheer ‘all day Panthers’ was constantly flying across all courts. Our fitness allowed us to play our way into the matches, settle in and experiment until we found our winning strategy.”

On top of all of the preseason excitement and intrigue, the team has a new head coach in Rachel Kahan. Kahan was an assistant and then the interim head coach after former coach Mike Morgan left for Pomona-Pitzer. Kahan, who played at Duke from 2010–2015, has more than caught on with her players.

“Rachel [Kahan] has been a great addition to the program as an assistant and now the head coach,” said Stowe. “Her being named the interim head coach was the only thing that kept us calm with the sudden departure of Coach Morgan.

“She [Kahan] is extremely competitive and encourages us to go into dual matches looking for wins anywhere we can get them, whether just a mere extra game or an exhibition set. It’s a great feeling having a coach who wants to win just as badly as we do.”

Blayze spoke volumes about Kahan’s positive impact as well.

“We are all extremely happy to see Rachel as our official head coach,” Blayze said, adding that Kahan “brings such amazing insight from her days playing for Duke. She really cares about each individual player and believes in all of us to try our best and work our hardest for the team.”

The Panthers certainly had their focus on the Tufts match, as they won two of the three doubles matches, and proved too strong for the Jumbos down the stretch in the singles competition. Almost all the matches were hotly contested, and Katy Hughes ’20 gave Tufts’ Patricia Obeid a scare at the No. 1 spot, narrowly losing 6–4 in the decisive second set after a tiebreaker in the first set. Christina Puccinelli ’19 had a marathon three-setter with Tufts’ Lauren Louks at the No. 2 spot and came out victorious.

The sophomores down the ladder indeed proved they were ready for their second season and showed no sign of a sophomore slump. Heather Boehm ’20 notched an impressive 6–2, 6–4 win, and Maddi Stow ’20 came back from losing the first set to win in a 10–8 third.

“It is really tempting to watch your teammates during your own match,” said Stowe, “so after losing the first set I had to really correct my poor eye control. With all of the nerves, it’s easy to be passive. My coaches continually reminded me to play as I had been practicing, which was what worked in doubles and eventually worked in singles. This included taking balls early, sometimes without a bounce.”

Blayze also rebounded after losing her first set in last week’s opener and said that she never doubted her ability to do it.

“I think … we have such grit and determination never to give up on that court, and that is why we won so many three-set matches this weekend,” Blayze said upon the team’s return from Medford. “We know that we have worked so hard throughout the offseason, and that if we believe in ourselves to come back, then that’s half of the battle.”

After proving they were deserving of their top ranking with a strong road win against a top-10 team, the women’s squad will return to action this weekend at home with a doubleheader against unranked Colby and St. Lawrence on Saturday afternoon. Meanwhile, the men’s squad is gearing up for a big weekend with matches against Colby, MIT and Brandeis, all ranked within the top 40 nationally.