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

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