The sixth-ranked men’s tennis team stunned previously undefeated No. 2 Bowdoin on Saturday, April 14, dismantling the Polar Bears 8–1 in the Nelson Recreation Center. They showed no mercy on their opponents on Sunday, April 15 either, efficiently shutting out Colby-Sawyer and downing No. 26 Skidmore 8–1 to move to 12–3 this season.
The Bowdoin matchup presented the Panthers with an opportunity to defeat one of the nation’s best teams in Bowdoin, after falling to No. 6 Claremont-Mudd Scripps and No. 5 Williams the previous two weekends, and prove they belong in the conversation of the nation’s best teams.
To give some perspective on Bowdoin’s season, they were undefeated coming into Middlebury on Saturday. This is a team that won the Nescac and made a run to the NCAA Final Four last year.
Their record table for single-season wins is riddled with names of current players, including current junior Grant Urken, who set the Bowdoin record for wins in a single season last year with 31. They have had four players named as ITA All-Americans in the past two years. This year, they’ve beaten two top-five ranked teams, and this is reflected in their national ranking. To put it lightly, this is certainly an era of strong men’s tennis teams at Bowdoin College.
On Saturday, Middlebury dominated that same program. Middlebury’s stellar day began in doubles, when they won all three matches to set the tone in Nelson. After suffering a few setbacks against top teams despite what is usually an exceptionally strong doubles core, the Panthers doubles pairings struck back.
Of his own pairing with Peter Martin ’19, Timo van der Geest ’18 said, “After having two tough doubles matches at third doubles last weekend against Williams and Tufts, it was great to see us bounce back from that and get a very close win against Bowdoin.” Van der Geest and Martin have been each other’s main partners this spring, and they’ve been a mainstay in the lineup for the Panthers, playing all but one match together, all the while compiling a 10–6 record. They showed their chemistry well on Saturday, besting a familiar Bowdoin duo at No. 3 doubles 9–8 (7–2). “It felt really good to get the doubles win on Saturday; that’s the third time in a row that we’ve played against that same doubles team from Bowdoin, and the matches have always been pretty tight,” Martin said.
The rest of the doubles proved to be relatively routine finishes dominated by the Panthers’ singles studs. Lubomir Cuba ’19 and Kyle Schlanger ’19 combined for their 11th win of the year in first doubles, compared to just three losses, while William de Quant ’18 and Noah Farrell ’19 picked up their fourth win in five matches together in second doubles to give Middlebury momentum heading into singles.
“To be able to win all three doubles matches gave us great momentum to go into singles,” said van der Geest. After finding themselves on the other side two weekends ago when they lost all three doubles matches to rival Williams, Middlebury reversed that feeling on Saturday. Martin, who, like van der Geest, did not play in singles, remained focused on the team. “It definitely felt great to help the team get out to a big lead, which always seems to help give our guys a lot of confidence going into singles,” he said.
Confidence is a word van der Geest also used to describe the team sentiment on Saturday. “I think the Bowdoin win solidified the confidence we still had in our entire team, even after we had suffered two tough losses to CMS and Williams,” said the senior. “We knew we have the capabilities to beat any team in the country, and this reaffirmed that. However, our season so far has shown us that we have to show up every single time we go out to play.”
Playing No. 1 singles, Cuba showed up against Bowdoin’s Urken on Saturday, winning big in the third set after getting shut out in the second. Cuba has bounced back after back-to-back singles losses against his opponents from CMS and Williams, winning at Tufts last weekend and then twice this weekend.
“We definitely demonstrated that we can be a really tough team at every spot in the lineup when we are playing well,” said assistant coach Andrew Thomson ’10, convinced Middlebury’s depth is exceptional this season.
The rest of the singles players impressed, to Thomson’s point, but head coach Bob Hansen had a lot to say about his seniors in particular. “We had our senior celebration after the Bowdoin match, which was very fun and a fitting and well-deserved occasion, as the seniors went 5–0 against Bowdoin, leading the team to victory over a very strong team,” he said. He certainly had his eyes on de Quant and Schlanger, who won at No. 3 and No. 4 singles respectively, in addition to the doubles wins they and van der Geest picked up.
While the seniors shined on Saturday, Middlebury’s first-years had their moments as well. Andre Xiao ’21 made quick work at the No. 6 spot to move to 11–2 this spring, while Nate Eazor ’21 couldn’t come back after a tight 7–5 loss in the first set, suffering just his third loss of the spring. Both players have worked their way into Hansen’s regular lineup in their first seasons in the blue-and-white, as demonstrated by their presence against the nation’s No. 2 team.
The 8–1 match was not a walkover like the final score indicates, and the Panthers had to battle at every position to secure such a definitive win. Members of the squad were ready to learn from the match even in the face of what looked like a blowout on paper, very aware that any regular season win is a loss if they grow complacent afterwards. “It definitely meant a lot for us to prove we can put the pieces together against a tough and well-coached Bowdoin team and come away with a victory. Even though the final score was 8–1, the match was extremely competitive, and we will have to make sure to be prepared in the event we play them again,” said Thomson.
Hansen attributes the success to the Panthers’ preparation, and was quick to look forward to more improvements before their next match. “The weekend was a result of strong practices all week, and I look forward to another strong week of work heading into the very stiff competition next weekend. It was definitely taxing but should also really prepare us for the challenges ahead,” he added.
After giving some fresh bodies a chance against Colby-Sawyer and proceeding to down them 9–0, the Panthers put an exclamation point on the weekend with an 8–1 win against No. 26 Skidmore, during which they dropped only two sets total. The Panthers barely have a chance to relax, as next weekend presents another exciting opportunity.
Thomson was happy with the wins, but said they are not satisfied with anything just yet. “Now that we know we can play at an extremely high level on our home courts, we have a great opportunity this coming weekend to try to replicate our effort on the road versus three tough opponents, including No. 1 Emory,” he said. The team remembers the close losses to Williams and CMS well as they look forward to a shot at the top team in the country, but Hansen said he recognizes the advantages that come with the Panthers’ adversity thus far. “I like that we are building and that it has not all gone smoothly so far. Overall [I am] very proud of our strong, courageous and connected effort this weekend,” he said.
The team will need another courageous effort this weekend against the 2017 national champion, Emory (13–2), whom the Panthers will meet at Trinity (5–6, 0–5 in the Nescac) on Saturday, April 21 after a match with the Bantams that morning. However, little separates the top six teams in the country right now. Emory has had close calls with Chicago and CMS, as well as a loss against the same DII Azusa-Pacific team that Middlebury pushed in a close match. The match is up for grabs, so do not be surprised if the Panthers come out of the weekend having made a case for No. 1 in the country.