Tuesday, April 29, 2014

NESCAC (Regular Season) Champions!

When a team is not yet prepared to win big matches you can see it in the player's eyes when the opportunity presents itself. There is fear, nerves, and an unconscious, but deep seeded belief, that this is not going to end up well. On the contrary when a team has done the necessary work to prepare themselves for the 'moment' and truly believes that their efforts over the past few months and years have prepared them to perform courageously when it matters, it's just as evident. On Saturday the latter presented itself time and time again and whether it was in singles, doubles, or through support from the sidelines the Panther's believed.
Pre-match visualization in the locker room. Spoiler alert: Pete (lower right) is pretty good at this stuff. 
The most recent rendition of the classic Middlebury-Amherst NESCAC matchup took place in Nelson Arena (amazingly our 11th match of the year that has been played inside versus only 8 outside) on the morning of Saturday, April 26th with the winner earning the #1 seed in the NESCAC tournament the following weekend. Following the national anthem the double's teams took the courts and teed it up. At the #1 spot the match started on serve but the Lord Jeffs were looking strong. Joey Fritz, Amherst's #1 singles and doubles player, hits a very big ball and indoors his serve was untouchable. At the #2 spot the ever dependable team of Brantner Jones and Palmer Campbell came out hot and went up an early break 5-2, Campbell was especially toasty hitting several brilliant winners and then turning to the crowd and sticking out his tongue in his patented, yet bizarre, celebration ritual. 
B-Jones and Palmer before domination.
In the background notice Bob, who has a keen eye for net heights, ensuring that center strap is exactly thirty-six inches.
At #3 the Panther's were facing by the far the strongest team they had faced all year and looked unprepared early on. They went down 0-3 in a hurry before they finally settled in and started to trade service holds. #2 was the first off was a dominating 8-3 victory that gave the Panther's the 1-0 lead in the match. Shortly after #2 came off the #1 team of Andrew Lebovitz and Alex Johnston fell 8-6, unable to overcome a 4-4 service break and the match was knotted 1-1.
Lebo bringing his usual positive energy.
At #3 doubles things were not looking good. Down a single break 4-7 the Panther's would need a hold, a break, and another hold to put themselves back in contention. But as legendary hockey coach Herb Brooks once said, “Great moments are born from great opportunities.” And the Panther's certainly had a great opportunity. Ari Smolyar served a solid game to hold and push the score to 5-7, then returning against the extremely talented serve and volley specialist Michael Solimano, the Panther duo played a stunning return game to break for 6-7. A gritty service game by Smolyar pushed the match to 7-7 where both teams each picked up one more hold to send the match to a tiebreak. Before the tiebreak Smolyar and Peter Heidrich looked confident but Heidrich had an unsettling grin on his face. As Coach Sabel walked up to deliver some final words of encouragement Heidrich smiled big and said, “I've been visualizing this moment for the last couple of weeks.” And if visualizing can do to anyone else what it did to Heidrich in that breaker, we all should spend a couple minutes a day thinking about positive outcomes to pressure packed scenarios as he played some of the best doubles of the year to give Midd a 6-5 tiebreak lead. Not wanting to miss out the moment Smolyar did his best super hero side kick impersonation and hit a massive, untouchable return on match point to give the Panther's the 9-8(5) victory and the 2-1 lead going into singles.
Moment's after the #3 doubles clinch.
Pre-singles huddle.
One can only imagine who or what P-dawg is smiling at. 
As the singles started up it was evident, well I suppose more evident is a better term, that this match was going to be a war. Every match was tight with neither player in any match able to gain a two game advantage over his opponent. Eventually Jones broke away at #2 singles and took a 5-2 lead in the first. However, his opponenet locked in at battled back reeling off five straight games to give Amherst the first set at #2. At #1 Alex Johnston played a great first set and was able to come away with a tiebreak to give Midd the first set. At #3 Palmer Campbell got broken late in the set and couldn't recover as he dropped the first to one of Division III's few remaining true serve and volleyers. At #4 Ari Smolyar played his usual brand of aggressive, in your face tennis to grab the first 6-4 to give each team 2 first sets. At #1 singles Johnston upped his game to previously unseen levels that would've legitimately made him one of the better Division I players in the country, and reeled off an unbelievable 6 games in a row for a 7-6(4), 6-0 victory that give the Panther's their third point of the match.
Johno mobbed after his second set obliteration of Fritz.
Next off was #4 where Smolyar's opponent seemed uninterested in doing what it was going to take to beat the relentless Panther. In his defense, few have this year as Smolyar has gone an amazing 14-1 in singles play with his only loss coming 10-8 in a super tie break. Shortly after Smolyar came off and gave the Panther's the 4-1 lead the Jeff's shot back and grabbed #3 singles 6-4, 6-3 to push the score to 4-2. As #5 and #6 singles started Brantner Jones pulled off a trick you'd know was coming if you watched Brantner play this year and played a stellar second set to even the match at one set a piece. As the third set began it become evident that it was all going to come down to this match. While Jackson Frons and Courtney Mountifield were battling they both seemed to have met their opponents on the wrong day and on the wrong surface as each were on the wrong end of 6-1 first set losses. Jones played a great game at 3-3 and broke to go up 4-3. He held for 5-3 and then took a 15-40 lead in his opponent’s next service game that gave the Panther's two match, match points. In what Brantner would later describe as one of the worst forehands of this life (always one for the hyperbole is Mr. Jones) he lost the first, then lost the second to a bout of nerves when he failed to scoop a running forehand pass over the next. Amherst played two solid points to grab the hold and make the set score 5-4 with Brantner serving. Determined not to make the same mistake twice Brantner played a gritty and courageous service game unloading forehand after forehand to his opponent's backhand and sprinting to the net when the opportunity presented itself to go up 40-15. With yet another match, match point Jones spun a serve in, put his opponent on the ropes with consecutive forehands to opposite corners, then found one he liked and smashed it to the backhand side. He ran in behind it and poked a forehand volley up the line, well out of his opponent's reach, threw his racquet to the ground and thrust his hands in the air. Victory!
B-Jones clinches!
Bobby and Brantner hug it out.
Teammates join in on the celebration!
And Zach holds onto his lucky singles stick, which he refused to put down after B-Jone turned the tides in the second set.
The Panther's had about twenty-two minutes to enjoy the victory before hopping in the vans and making the three hour trek down to Medford, Massachusetts were the Panthers were slated to play the Tufts Jumbos in the morning. It is always a challenge getting back up for a match after such an emotional high and the Panther's certainly struggled in this regard versus the Jumbos. Nonetheless we managed to take two of three doubles and then four of six singles for a routine 6-3 win. In addition to our usual traveling leap of Panther parents it was great to see alums Kevin Bergersen and his father, Derrick Angle, as well as former head coach Dave Schwarz in the crowd. After the match we were fortunate enough to head thirty minutes north to Weston, Mass and eat an incredible spread of food at the Lebovitz's home before another three hour drive back to Midd.

This next weekend we'll head up to Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine to play in the NESCAC tournament. Because we're the #1 seed we will have a bye on Friday and then will face the lowest seed still left in the tournament on Saturday. Depending on how things go that will either be Bowdoin, Trinity, or Tufts. And if we do our job on Saturday the finals will be Sunday morning. Wish us luck and we'll report back next weekend, hopefully with a conference championship under our belt!

-Coaches Bob, Max, and Charles

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