Men’s Tennis Beats No. 1 Emory, Making Case For Top ITA Ranking

By JACK KAGAN

Middlebury men’s tennis made a convincing case for the top spot of the national polls by defeating No. 1 and defending national champion Emory during a weekend trip to Connecticut, where the Panthers also beat Trinity 6–3 on Saturday, April 21, and No. 13 Wesleyan 5–4 on Sunday, April 22.

The Panthers showed this past weekend that their 8–1 win against No. 2 Bowdoin on April 14th was not a fluke, and their championship aspirations were well founded. Just seven days later, they drove to Hartford for a matchup with No. 1 Emory on Trinity’s courts.

Before they played Emory, though, they had to show that the depth in their ladder could get through Trinity. Trinity was winless in the Nescac going into the match, and Middlebury gave their singles players some rest, though Andre Xiao ’21 played singles in both matches and ended up losing in a tight three-set match to senior Kyle Scheffers. Doubles standout Timo van der Geest ’18 also got the call to play No. 1 against Trinity, and lost in two closely contested sets, 7-6 (7-5), 6-4. Despite the Trinity’s sharp top-of-the-ladder players, Middlebury secured the win down the stretch with confident wins from experienced stand-ins Alex Vanezis ’20 and Adam Guo ‘21, not to mention a doubles core that held nothing back.

The Panthers sent out their usual squad of doubles teams to secure three easy points, as Lubo Cuba ‘19 and Kyle Schlanger ‘18 picked up their 13th win in 16 matches. The Panthers held nothing back in doubles and punished the Bantams 8–2, 8–2, and 8–4 en route to a 6–3 match victory. The Panthers no doubt had their eyes on Emory for later that day.

Emory has certainly established itself of late as a Division III powerhouse. The Eagles have won the national championships twice in the past six years and haven’t even finished outside the top 10 in almost 20 years. They traveled up to Hartford undefeated in DIII play after fending off No. 3 University of Chicago, No. 13 Wesleyan, and No. 5 Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, who handed Middlebury a 7–2 loss in California almost a month ago. That being said, neither team forgot the 6–3 loss Middlebury handed Emory last year — a defeat that failed to slow the Eagles trajectory to a national championship just two months thereafter.

Last year’s loss seemed perhaps all too familiar for the Eagles as the Panthers proceeded to dominate. The wins started early for Midd, who masterfully handled the Eagles at No. 1 and No. 2 doubles, each by scores of 8–1. Van der Geest, playing on minimal rest, showed what he had left in the tank as he and Peter Martin ’19 rounded out the scoring to start the match off 3–0. Panthers duos are an impressive 47–13 this spring, and the players must be comforted each time they can jump out to such a big lead moving into singles play.

The Panthers singles players scarcely needed the boost, as they dominated the first through fourth singles spots. The upperclassmen at the top of the ladder made quick work of the men from Emory. Schlanger picked up his fourth-straight win of the spring, while the others finished without much commotion. The top and middle of the ladder left no double who is the better team.

“It took a belief in ourselves and a constant attention on staying focused in our execution of our individual game plans, which differ vastly based on the unique talents of each of our players,” assistant coach Andrew Thomson said.

After Cuba clinched the match with his 10th win of the spring, the first-years at the bottom of the ladder ran into trouble against Emory’s upperclassmen. Xiao, with little rest, and Nate Eazor ’21 could not finish the job as they fell in incredibly close three-setters with multiple tie-breaks. The upperclassmen had picked them up, however, and the Panthers emerged having tackled the No. 1 team in the country, handing them their first DIII loss of the season.

“Beating Emory was a monster win, no doubt about it,” Thomson said. “Anytime you beat a time with that much talent and that strong of a record, it demonstrates that we have a lot of things heading in the right direction for our group.

“Of course, it is very possible we will play Emory again and if we do so, we will expect it to be a war. They are always a tough team to beat and even though our victory was clear, we likely caught them on a day they were not playing their best. We will need to continue to improve so that we will be likely to win if we meet again and when they are playing better.”

Despite Saturday’s heroics, the result of the weekend still wasn’t certain until the very end. After van der Geest and Martin dropped a tie-breaker to Wesleyan’s Stephen Chen and Cam Daniels, the Panthers found themselves with a narrow 2–1 lead heading into singles against a Wesleyan team that plays an incredibly strong schedule and almost knocked off previously-No. 7 Washington University in St. Louis and previously-No. 8 Carnegie Mellon.

Looking to avoid any theatrical upsets, the rock-solid middle of the ladder for Middlebury took care of business in dominant fashion to quickly clinch the match for the Panthers. Schlanger picked up his 11th win in 15 matches, while Eazor and Will de Quant ’18 followed suit. If it weren’t for the order of the matches, the match might have looked in doubt for the Panthers. The Cardinals fought extremely hard, even unexpectedly winning at No. 1 and No. 2 singles, to bring themselves within two points of the Panthers, who led 5-3. Wesleyan’s Princeton Carter took advantage of Xiao’s exhausting weekend and pushed him to his limits, handing him a three-set loss.

The Cardinals narrowly missed the upset, and the Panthers survived the weekend unscathed and could finally celebrate their upending of the defending national champions.

When the updated ITA rankings come out later today, Middlebury figures to move up a few spots in the polls. Some have speculated that the Panthers may even be the ITA’s new top team heading into the tail end of the season.

“It will be interesting to see how the ITA committee decides upon both national and regional rankings as most teams have 1 or 2 losses at this point,” Thomson said. “While a No. 1 national ranking might be possible for us, the only benefit of it would be an improved draw for the NCAA tournament assuming we make it there.”

The Panthers must not look past Nescac championship host No. 7 Amherst in their final home match of the year on Sunday, April 29, as they await the seedings for the conference tournament.

“We will have to maintain the mentality of a team hungry to prove that we can beat anyone if we are to continue to have a successful season,” Thomson said. “This starts with Amherst this weekend, who will represent another extremely formidable Nescac opponent that is loaded with talent up and down their lineup.”

Though the Mammoths haven’t made any noise against top-five-ranked teams this season, they have been perfect against teams outside of this range, so look to the Proctor Tennis Courts on Sunday to see some heated action and a possible Nescac tournament preview.

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Men’s Tennis Beats No. 1 Emory, Making Case For Top ITA Ranking