Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Final Four! (video fix)

I've just realized the video will not work in the e-mail you receive so please visit the blog at http://middtennisnation.blogspot.com/ to view the video. It's really quite good so I highly recommend it.

Final Four!

The Midd mens tennis team marched one step closer to the 2014 NCAA National Championship with a convincing 5-1 quarterfinal victory over a talented Case Western Reserve University team. Before I give you my commentary please enjoy this brilliant video produced by Alex Johnston and Teddy Fitzgibbons (is there anything this guy can't do?)

The final leg of what has been a journey that started many years ago for some began on Friday when the team boarded plane for Claremont, California. We landed in the early afternoon and sped off towards Whittier College to hit a few tennis balls in the California sun. Playing out here is a bit different from playing in Vermont. The heat, of course is a factor, but the air is also thinner so the ball tends to sail on you and the courts, particularly the tournament courts in Claremont, tend to play a bit slower. Nonetheless we adjusted nicely and had an impressive and confidence building day one.
The beautiful courts at Whittier College, site of day one's hit.
Johno, Frons, and Courtney soak in some rays with Whittier head coach Ben Belletto.
Kids and their phones these days.
On Saturday we had a noon hit on the courts at Pomona College as you're only allowed to play on the tournament courts one day before the tournament. Our boys looked sharper than they had the day before and the coaching staff was feeling confident that the pieces were beginning to come together. Later in the evening we had a lovely dinner thanks to the omnipresent Frons family.

On Sunday we had a 9 A.M. hit on the Claremont courts where would be playing our match in exactly 24 hours. These courts, more so than pretty much any hard courts you'll ever play on, are slow and gritty. When the ball bounces it almost holds on the surface and that explodes off with whatever spin you put on the ball being slightly exacerbated. Though again, as the Panthers have done all season whether the tennis has been indoors on sports courts or outdoors in the misting rain, we adjusted just fine and looked like a team ready to play for a title.

Visualization after our hit on Sunday.
On Monday it was a game time. We knew the Case Western team we were about to play was fiery and thrived on energy so a quick start was key, and we certainly got that. The #3 doubles tandem of Ari Smolyar and Peter Heidrich started out with a beautiful break where they cracked 5 quality returns and won 4 of the points. Branter Jones and Palmer Campbell were quick to follow and after a marathon game they broke to go up 2-1. 
With B-Jones firm handshake and Palmer's giddy excitement these two present quite the dichotomy to opposing coaches.
Bobby thinking, "Schools about to be in session."
Back at #3 the route was on before the Spartans even know what had hit them. After a gritty hold by Pete Heidrich to take the match to 2-0, the Panthers broke again and when the #1 and #2 matches were still in their infancy Pete and Ari were up 7-1. At #1 doubles the Panther duo of Alex Johnston and Andrew Lebovitz where in a war. 
Bob surely offering some sage advice.
The man of the hour. Andrew 'Alpha' Lebovitz.
Down a break 4-6 Johno and Lebo played a lights out game and got the break back and consolidated it with a hold to even the match at 6-6. As Johno and Lebo evened the match the #2 team of B-Jones and P-Dawg won 8-3 for a dominating victory against a tough team. The #2's win pushed the dual match score to 2-0 as Ari and Peter had won several eons ago. At 7-7 Lebo played one of the better return games of the year but the boys couldn't quite get the break and the match was pushed to a tiebreak. But fear not as Lebo seemed to have entered the much talked about, but seldom visited athletic 'Zone'. The guy could not miss and insisted on hitting every ball, be it a return or volley, 100 miles per hour and 1 inch above the tape. On serve 4-5 Lebo put in two smart first serves to put the Panthers up 6-5. Johno, who had been frustrated with his returns when the team couldn't capitalize at 7-7, laced a backhand and after a bit scurrying Johno put down a volley for a 9-8(5) victory and a Panther 3-0 doubles sweep.
The duo of destruction.
Post doubles sweep excitement! Though everyone knows you still need 2 more points.
The Panthers keep the momentum going in singles winning 4 first sets and putting the squeeze on from many directions. At #6 singles Jackson Frons, happy to be back in his home state, played a brilliant match against a testy serve and volleyer and was first off with a 6-4, 6-2 victory that put the Panthers up 4-0.
Frons after a quick day at the office.
Our resident acrobat.
P-dawg was well on his way to a win after one his more solid matches of the year.
The search for the fifth point came down to #1, #2, #3 singles who were up (6-1, 6-5), (6-2, 6-5), and (6-3, 5-3), respectively. Johno, whose parents and brother traveled all the way from England to watch the big Brit play, opted to take the clinch and after his victory that gave Midd the 5-1 win, fired a ball to a different stratosphere in celebration.
Post-match meeting.

With the win Midd moves on to the semifinals, to played in just a few hours, against the #1 ranked team of Claremont-Mudd-Scripps. There is live video as well as some interesting commentary on http://www.ncaa.com/liveschedule so tune if you have some free time. Wish us luck and we'll get back to you tomorrow, hopefully with a pre-championship match post!

A little bonus media as here's a post match interview with Bob and Johno courtesy of CMS athletics.


-Coaches Bob, Max, and Charles

Monday, May 12, 2014

Elite 8!

Last week after a tough loss to Amherst in the NESCAC tournament finals we said we had learned a valuable lesson. Part one of the lesson was that getting swept, or even losing the doubles point, makes winning much more challenging. Part two was that doubles point or no doubles point we can battle at all six singles position. And a day after quickly dispatching Babson College in the round of 32, the Midd Panthers applied said lessons in a brilliant match against defending NCAA Champion Williams College.
Sweet 16 introductions!

Lebo hasn't missed a half volley since 1800.
Coincidentally, the same year Middlebury was founded.
Going into doubles confidence was high as we were familiar with our opponents and the collective feeling was that if we played with the right mix of aggression, resiliency, and composure the chips would fall our way. However, at #1 doubles the senior duo of Alex Johnston and Andrew Lebovitz weren't content with hoping the chips would fall their way, they were counting cards to ensure it. Johno started it off with a hold at love, only to be followed up by a Panther break at love. Five points later Lebo had held and after winning 12 of the first 13 points the Panther's had a 3-0 lead. At two doubles things were decidedly more choppy for the team of Brantner Jones and Palmer Campbell as they were broken early to go down 1-2. They battled back to regain the break at 5-5 only to be broken again on the very next game to go down 5-6. The #3 doubles tandem of Ari Smolyar and Peter Heidrich were in a similar position. They went down a break early, regained the break and were then broken right back for a 5-6 hole.

The Midd supporters were out in droves on Saturday.
14 Strong! Post doubles team huddle.
First off were #1 doubles, who had stopped winning every game and were instead just winning most, with an 8-3 victory that put the Panther's up 1-0. Next off was #3 who never really got back on track after the early break and subsequently fell 8-6. Not long after #3 came off the #2 team lost by a matching 8-6 score and Panthers found themselves down after doubles for only the second time all season. The question quickly became would the Panther's take a lesson from last weekend's loss and rally behind strong singles play or forgo the the aforementioned learning experience and stumble.
The LaZe man.
Singles started off close with only perennial superstar Brantner Jones running away with a first set 6-1. Yet, despite the margin in the first sets being very slim the Panthers flexed their muscles and somehow won all six of them. At #1 singles Johno won the first 6-3, as mentioned Brantner won 6-1 at #2, Palmer grabbed his first 7-5, at #4 Ari won 7-5, at #5 Courtney won 7-6(2), and at #6 Frons went up 6-4. Taking all 6 sets against any top 30 team is a real challenge and to do so against a team as strong as Williams showed what heart this Panther squad has. B-Jones followed up his dominating first set with a workmen like second and finished off the match with a 6-1, 6-4 win that knotted the overall score at 2 apiece. Shortly thereafter Palmer finished off his second set, which was decidedly less close than the first, and grabbed the third point for the Panthers with a 7-5, 6-2 victory.
Brantner with the slick-back hair. 
Courtney, ever so politely, telling the Williams coach to mind his own business.
Though Midd had clearly swung the momentum in our direction the work was far form done as Williams had dug in at #1 and #6 and taken second sets by identical 6-3 scores. At #4 and #5 Midd was up a break in both second sets by the going was tough. Eventually Ari Smolyar managed to seal the deal and bring home the fourth point for Midd with a 7-5, 6-3 win. And as Alex and Jackson both began their third sets the man of the hour Courtney Mountifield made sure he was the one to end the match winning the second and clinching his match as well as the match for Midd with a 7-6(2), 6-3 win.
Smolyar grinding!

Bruchmiller approves.
With the victory the Panther's advance to the Elight 8 in Claremont, California. Play begins on Monday, May 19th when the Panther's will face a talented Case Western team. The Midd migration will begin Friday with the team heading out a few days early to ensure we're properly adjusted to the heat as well as the outdoor conditions. In addition to the team qualifying for the tournament we were also pleased to learn that Alex Johnston qualified for the NCAA Individual tournament in singles while Alex and Lebo qualified for the tournament in doubles. Brantner is the first alternate in singles so here's to hoping someone has to withdraw from the tournament for the most benign reason possible. Wish us luck as we head west with the goal of winning the 2014 NCAA National Championship creeping closer and closer.
We're headed to Claremont! Elite 8 on Monday the 19th versus Case Western
Seniors celebrate their second straight trip to the final 8. 
-Coaches Bob, Max, and Charles

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

NESCAC Tournament and Early Rounds of NCAAs

As the three coaches sat in Bob's house Monday night reminiscing on the weekend, and specifically comparing the moods of their respective car rides home from Bowdoin College and the 2014 NESCAC Conference Tournament, there was a feeling of excitement. Not because there is any sense of satisfaction from taking second in what is undoubtedly the strongest tennis conference in Division III, but because the players had already put this challenging defeat in the proper context. Yes, it was difficult for the seniors to push so hard and make their first NESCAC final only to lose. Yes, getting swept in doubles for the first time was a shock to the system. And yes, the path to the NCAA championship did get slightly more difficult. But collectively the players were looking past all these negatives and pulling out positives. There was a resounding sentiment that while we've been great in doubles there has been some complacency on the practice courts and we must continue to push to get better. And that while we have the ability to sweep any team in the country if we come out with good energy and fire, we can also be swept if we come out flat. And finally, that this loss, as painful as it was, will push us to get better before the NCAA tournament begins, and come year end we may look back on this as a blessing in disguise.
Unfortunately we had no photographer this weekend so we have to use some older photos.
However, you probably never would've noticed had I not told you. So there's that.
Ari Bomaye!
As you may know, or at least should've deduced by now, the Middlebury Panthers fell just short of the postseason NESCAC crown falling 5-1 in the finals to Amherst College. The path to the finals began on Saturday with the Panther's facing a strong Bowdoin team on their home courts. Middlebury won the earlier bout clipping Bowdoin 7-2 in mid-April but the first match had been played at Middlebury and Midd had to save multiple match points at #3 doubles to come away with the doubles point. Granted we also rolled with relative ease in singles, but nonetheless this was not a match to overlook. And as Coach Hansen likes to say, “I learned a long time ago if they can put on a pair of shorts, they can beat you.” The warmup began outdoors but to no New Englander's surprise the rain started to fall just before the first points were played. And because the Williams/Amherst semi-final was not over we moved to the indoor facility and then had to wait another half hour for Amherst to clinch. A mere ten minute warmup later and we were ready for play. At all three positions Middlebury started off well, but not with the positivity and fire that is typical of this Panther bunch. As the matches creeped along neither team was able to break and things were starting to look dodgy. That feeling was exemplified when Bowdoin broke on #3 to go up 4-5 and then mere seconds later broke on #1. The noise and excitement Bowdoin brought after picking up breaks seemed to roust the Panther's from their mid-afternoon naps and all of the sudden we went on a roll. We immediately broke back at #3 and #1 and went up a break at #2. The #3 tandem of Ari Smolyar and net-monster Peter Heidrich were first off reeling off 4 more games to win 8-5. Not long after the rockstar #2 duo of Palmer Campbell and Brantner Jones won 8-5 leaving only the #1 team on court. After trading breaks at 5-5 both teams held to a tiebreak where Bowdoin went ahead 6-5 serving. Bowdoin's #1 player Noah Bragg hit a huge serve out wide to Alex Johnston's backhand who somehow got behind it and dipped it beautifully below net level forcing Bragg to hit a low volley they he couldn't get up over the net. The Panther's grabbed the next points on routine, well as routine as an Andrew Lebovitz flying backhand volley spike can be, plays and clinched the doubles sweep. 
Lebovitz launching a lefty lazer.
In singles it was a race to the finish line as Midd was applying pressure at all positions. Johnston was first off topping Bragg in a 6-4, 7-6(3) battle to add the 4th point to the Middlebury score column and shortly thereafter Smolyar clinched the match 6-2, 7-5. Being as it is the postseason tournament the match stopped after the clinch, however Midd was leading at the four other singles spots and had the match continued a 9-0 sweep was feasible.
Pre-match visualization before Amherst. The one original photo from the weekend.
After a good night's sleep the Panther's awoke to rainy skies which meant that the NESCAC finals against Amherst College would be played indoors. Loyal Panther followers will remember just a few weeks ago when the Panther's eked out a 5-4 win indoors versus Amherst and Midd nation was hoping for a little more of the same. However, Amherst had a different plan as they came out on fire in doubles. At #2 and #3 doubles the Lord Jeffs opened the match with breaks and at #1 they grabbed a break just a few games in. The #1 team of Johnston and Lebovitz managed to get the break back but they were unable to consolidate and were immediately broken back the following game to go down 6-5. After a quick hold by Amherst the strong Jeff duo broke again to take the 8-5 victory and give Amherst the 1-0 lead. At #2 and #3 the Panther's struggled to get into Amherst's return games and eventually both teams fell, #2 by a single break 8-5 and #3 by two breaks 8-4. Given that the Panther's have not lost the doubles point this entire year being swept was very unfamiliar territory. Yet despite the new situation the Panther's came out strong in singles. 
B-jones leaning on his patented slice approach.
At #1 Johnston played a brilliant first set but was broken late to drop it 6-4. At #2 Brantner battled back after dropping the first 2-6 to win the second 6-2 and had a great deal of momentum entering the third. At #3 Palmer fell into a hole early but managed to work hard and grab the first in a breaker. At #4 Ari recovered from a tough first set and put up a wall in the second forcing his talented opponent to refine his game plan. At #5 Courtney Mountifield was hitting the ball as big as he has all year and was in a close battle. And at #6 Jackson Frons overcame a less than stellar performance versus Bowdoin to tally a dominating 6-4, 6-1 victory that gave Middlebury it's only point of the day. Eventually Johnston and Smolyar lost their respective second sets to give Amherst the 5-1 lead and the clinch.
Enjoy this for what it is. 
Despite the loss the following day Middlebury received the good news that we will be hosting a an early round regional of the NCAA tournament and are the 4th seed overall. On Friday we will play the winner of Babson/Colby-Sawyer and if we win we will play the winner of Williams/Skidmore on Saturday with the victor earning a berth to the elite eight which begins the following week in Claremont, CA. Match times are still being determined and looking at the forecast it's possible we will be inside but we will be sure to keep Panther parents, alumni, and supporters in the loop. Once again we would like to thank everyone for their continued support throughout the season and wish us luck this weekend.

Coaches Bob, Max, and Charles