A Target on Their Backs: Men’s Tennis Enters Postseason as No. 1 Team in the Country

By Jack Kagan

Just days after the new ITA Division III rankings came out, new national No. 1 Middlebury men’s tennis ended the regular season on Sunday, April 29 with a dominant 7–2 win over Nescac championship hosts No. 8 Amherst. The men are anxious to prove themselves at Nescacs and NCAAs, but this won’t come easily, as the other teams in the top five in the country are all looking for another shot at the Panthers.

Middlebury hosted Amherst on Sunday in their sixth and final home match out of 21 total matches. Sent inside by the rain, the Panthers showed their fondness for the Nelson Recreation Center indoor courts as they bested the fourth-best team in the Nescac in convincing fashion.

Amherst tennis is no stranger to tennis glory, however. The Mammoths won both Nescac and national titles in 2011 and 2014, and their only losses this year have come against the current top five teams in DIII tennis. Their closest test came against Williams the day before that team snuck by the Panthers 5–4 on April 7.  

On Sunday, Middlebury showed no mercy to the Mammoths, closing out conference and regular season play. Starting the match, the Panthers doubles squads returned to the excellence to which they have been accustomed this season. Timo van der Geest ’18 and Peter Martin ‘19 picked up their 13th win of the season as they stomped Oliver Kendall and Jesse Levitin by a score of 8–2 at No. 3 doubles. At No. 2, William de Quant ’18 and Noah Farrell ’19 notched their eighth straight win, also by a score of 8–2. Lubomir Cuba ’19 and Kyle Schlanger ’18 tallied their seventh straight win to move to 16–3 this spring. Panthers doubles teams moved to an impressive 50–13 this spring as they once again gave the team a 3–0 lead heading into singles.

Schlanger was first off the court on Sunday with a routine straight-sets win over Amherst’s Jayson Fung as the senior made it six in a row moving into his last postseason. Facing adversity early was standout Cuba, who ended up losing a battle in the third set to Amherst freshman phenom Sean Wei, a recent five-star prospect who was ranked 26th in his recruiting class nationally. With a comfortable 4–1 lead, the Panthers still found themselves in several battles down the stretch.

Senior William de Quant found himself in one of these tight matches after being forced into a decisive third set after splitting the first two lopsided sets. Assistant coach Andrew Thomson said of de Quant’s match, “He played a [player] who … played No. 1 for Amherst last year … [s]o a very talented player. Will got off to a very hot start and won the first set decisively, and the second set didn’t go his way, but to his credit he really bounced back strong and remained confident.” De Quant commented on how he was able to turn the tide in the third set, saying, “The difference between the second set and the third set was actually quite subtle. Whoever was on the front foot and controlling from the baseline was the one winning the most points, and I forced myself in the beginning of the third set to step into the court and dictate. Once I did this, I found it easier to spread my opponent out and keep the outcome of the points on my racket and not his.” De Quant was able to overpower his opponent in the third set by a score of 6–1 to clinch the match for the Panthers.

The drama still was not over for Middlebury as Farrell found himself in a tight second set requiring a tie-break. For Thomson, Farrell’s demeanor was plenty indication that he would figure it out and secure the win.

“It was awesome watching him play,” Thomson said of Farrell. “Noah did a great job playing his game and being patient and enjoying being out there. He always plays better when he’s having fun on the court.” Farrell’s win grew the Panthers’ lead to 6–1.

The first-years at the bottom of the ladder were left, then. Andre Xiao ’21, who has posted an impressive 12–6 record thus far, has fallen into somewhat of a funk lately, and lost his fourth straight match on Sunday, falling in straight sets. Nate Eazor ’21 had a different match, however, as he shut down his opponent 6–3, 6–4 to complete the 7–2 win for Middlebury.

The next test for the Panthers could come as early as Friday, May 4, when the No. 3 and No. 6 seeds face off in the opening round of the Nescac tournament at Amherst. As of Sunday, the team did not know its seeding for the tournament.

From a seeding perspective, Bowdoin, Williams and Middlebury are all tied for first, but due to … tie-breaking rules, we could well end up being third seed,” de Quant said. Though they sit atop the national rankings, the Panthers could be nagged by a previous loss to Williams, which created a triangle between the Ephs, the Panthers, and the Bowdoin Polar Bears, who suffered their only loss at the hands of Middlebury several weeks ago. With the No. 3 seed, Midd would have to play an opening-round match against the No. 6 seed, potentially Wesleyan or Bates. With the No. 1 or 2 seed, they would get an automatic bye into the semifinals.

Their No. 1 national ranking guarantees the Panthers nothing in the Nescac tournament, where they may get a chance to settle the score with Williams.

Of course, we would love to get a swing at Williams again, as we are a different team than we were when we came up just short to them a few weeks ago,” de Quant said. “Despite now being No. 1, we feel we are only starting to heat up, and we have not yet reached our peak level.” Revenge against Williams, or a conference-tournament win punctuated by another win against national No. 3 Bowdoin, could be just what the Panthers need to remove all doubt surrounding their new ranking.

I think [our new ranking] was well deserved on our part. However, there are a lot of very good teams out there, and it’s definitely a year where there’s a lot of strong teams at the top and you could certainly make a case for them being really strongly ranked,” Thomson said. Because of the strength of the Nescac as a whole, Thomson added, this weekend could be a good test for the Panthers to prove themselves yet again.

We’ve done a good job beating some really good teams recently, but they’re going to be hungry and coming after us, especially after the latest rankings, so I think we have a little bit of a target on our back,” Thomson said. The Panthers are sure to see some familiar faces this weekend at Nescacs. “Every year we set a goal to win the Nescac championship. The Nescac is the deepest conference in the country. To be the best we have to beat the best,” de Quant said.

The Panthers did not know their fate for the weekend after receiving the No. 1 ranking or even after beating Amherst. This, however, does not change their goal. They are sure not to look past the familiar opponents in the Nescac for this weekend.

De Quant said it best: “We go into the weekend ready for any opponent, focused on controlling what we can control.”

The Panthers are deep, talented, healthy and ready for another go at the best conference in the country this weekend at Amherst.

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A Target on Their Backs: Men’s Tennis Enters Postseason as No. 1 Team in the Country