May Madness: Men’s Tennis to Host NCAA Regional

By JACK KAGAN

The men’s tennis team went into the Nescac playoffs as the hottest team in the country. Newly minted as the top-ranked team in the nation, the Panthers had not lost a match since April 7. Even though they entered as the third seed in the conference tournament because of a tiebreaker amongst them, Bowdoin and Williams, the Panthers entered as a favorite to bring home the conference crown.

As the No. 3 seed, Middlebury faced off with No. 22 Bates on Friday, May 4 in the quarterfinals in Amherst, Massachusetts. The Bobcats have had an up-and-down year and were never quite able to hit their stride to move into the top 15 in the country. Hovering around No. 20 for much of the year, they suffered several 5–4 losses to higher-ranked teams and finally had their season cut short by the Panthers in a crushing shutout last Friday.

Matches in the Nescac tournament are played only until one team clinches the match, so once a team reaches five points, the match ends. Middlebury left no doubt to their skill as they raced out to five points with ease on Friday. The Panthers swept the doubles with their usual staff of upperclassmen to take a 3–0 lead into singles.

William de Quant ’18 and Timo van der Geest ’18 shined at No. 3 and No. 6 singles, respectively, each dropping only one total game to their opponents. This ended the match quickly and efficiently as the Panthers walked away with a 5–0 victory. All other Panthers players were leading in their matches, including Lubomir Cuba ’19, who was just a couple of games from winning at No. 1 singles. 

The next day was a more formidable test for the Panthers in a rematch with Williams, who has been one of the toughest teams in DIII this year and handed Middlebury a loss on April 7. Going into Saturday, the Ephs had only lost two DIII matches all year, at the hands of powerhouses University of Chicago and Bowdoin. Middlebury has faced Williams seven times in the previous four seasons and won every single match before its loss to the Ephs earlier last month.

Saturday’s match was reminiscent of years past. Middlebury’s winning started in doubles, when the Panthers gained a 2–1 edge. Cuba and Kyle Schlanger ’18 won their ninth straight match together in a tight 9–8 (7–3) win in the first slot. Noah Farrell ’19 and de Quant won their 10th match of the spring 8–5 at No. 2, while van der Geest and Peter Martin ’19 lost just their eighth match of the spring compared to 14 wins.

Leading 2–1 as singles began, the Panthers needed only three matches to complete the day, holding Williams to one win on Saturday. Cuba overcame Williams’ Brian Grodecki in two sets, and Middlebury’s seniors followed suit, as de Quant and Schlanger dominated their opponents in similar straight sets. Farrell, van der Geest, and Nate Eazor ’21 were all relieved of their duties as the Panthers clinched the match.

After the Panthers got revenge on Saturday, Bowdoin had its own chance at retribution after Middlebury gave the Polar Bears their only loss of the season on April 14. Cuba and Schlanger continued their impressive winning streak by way of an 8–6 victory at No. 1 doubles that mirrored their win from three weeks ago. Van der Geest and Martin confidently picked up their 15th win of the spring, while Farrell and de Quant struggled as Bowdoin’s Kyle Wolfe and Jerry Jiang reversed their prior loss to the duo, besting the two Panthers 8–4.

Middlebury went into singles play with a 2–1 lead. 

“There were many positives to take away from the match, including another solid doubles performance as a team winning two of three,” Middlebury’s coaches, Bob Hansen and Andrew Thomson, said. “We feel that if we are able to continue staying connected and playing hard every doubles match that we will often find ourselves with an advantage heading into singles play.”

Cuba picked up his 12th win of the spring in a straight-set win over Grant Urken, who pushed him to a third set in their last matchup. This, however, was the only other match Middlebury won. The four other matches that finished went Bowdoin’s way. 

“It was certainly a disappointing finish,” said the coaches. “We were thrilled with the effort and passion that our guys poured into each of their matches. We knew Bowdoin was going to come after us because we had gotten the better of them in the regular season matchup, and credit to them for playing some great tennis.”

Farrell’s opponent, Bowdoin’s Luke Tercek, avenged an earlier loss, besting Farrell 6–2 in a third set. The same went for Bowdoin’s No. 3, Kyle Wolfe, whom de Quant edged out last time in a tie break. This time around, Wolfe got revenge, handing de Quant his third loss of the spring in the process.

Bowdoin’s Gil Roddy provided their lone victory in their April matchup against the Panthers in a straight-sets shutdown of Eazor, and this time proved similar, though Eazor fought to make the match much tighter, losing in three sets. This marks only Eazor’s fifth loss of the spring, compared to 12 wins. 

Van der Geest, at No. 6 singles, has fought his way back into the singles lineup, replacing freshman Andre Xiao, who ended his season on a rough note with a four-match losing streak. Van der Geest, however, could not convert in the third set against Bowdoin’s Justin Patel, who Xiao bested in straight sets in April. Schlanger’s match got cut short in the third set as Bowdoin took the fifth and decisive point to avenge its earlier loss at the hands of the Panthers and win its second straight Nescac championship. 

The season does not end there for the Panthers, though. They received an at-large bid into the NCAA DIII men’s tennis championship Monday. As members of perhaps the toughest conference in the country, Nescac foes No. 4 Williams and No. 8 Amherst also earned at-large bids, to bring the conference total to four along with the Panthers and the Polar Bears. The selection committee clearly looked past the Panthers’ playoff woes and showed respect to their national ranking, selecting Middlebury to host a region of the tournament this weekend, when six other teams will descend onto the Proctor Tennis Courts.

Four teams, Wilkes University, Colby-Sawyer College, MIT, and Cabrini University, will battle for the chance to play either Middlebury or No. 24 Johns Hopkins University in the second round. All four of the first-round teams made runs to win their respective conferences, granting them an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament.

“We are looking forward to a very tough and challenging series of matches after seeing the release of the NCAA bracket,” said the coaches. “Most importantly, our job this week is to stay focused on what matters most, enjoying every step of the process and competing with everything we have each day whether it’s a practice or a match day.” 

It’s possible that the second round will see Middlebury play a Colby-Sawyer squad that they demolished about a month ago. This would more than likely set up a match with Johns Hopkins, who plays a relatively weak schedule and whose most notable wins have come over top-20 opposition Swarthmore and Mary Washington in their Centennial Conference tournament run. 

Being the favorites to move out of their region, the Panthers will be hoping to extend their season to next weekend, when, if given the opportunity, they would fly back to Claremont, California, for a possible rematch with Williams or No. 2 Emory. 

“As always, we will try to prepare ourselves as best we can in every facet of the game to ensure we give ourselves the best possible likelihood of being successful,” said the coaches.

They are certainly favored to make it at least that far, and they have home-court advantage and seeding on their side as they try to make it to the quarterfinals in their quest for a national championship.

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May Madness: Men’s Tennis to Host NCAA Regional