Tuesday, June 3, 2014

It's the Journey Not the Destination

When a group of brilliant individuals come together and set a goal so ambitious that few others would even have the courage to attempt to achieve it, then come so close, but ultimately fail, one would think that heartbreak would be the end result. And they would be right. 
Getting ready to battle the Stags.
But to stop there would belittle what was truly a remarkable season for the Middlebury Panthers. A season in which the boys notched 21 wins, including a win over eventual national champion Amherst, won the regular season NESCAC conference title, won an ITA Doubles National Title, had 4 NCAA/ITA All-Americans, and most of all a season where it all seemed to click. For the three years he has been head coach of the Panthers Coach Hansen has preached core principles. Among them there are the ideas of unity, unselfishness, heart, and gratefulness. 
14 Strong! One last time.
Lebo was always taught to volley by leading with the bottom edge.
Typical Lebo to take advice too literally.
Jokes on me though as these two earned All-American honors just a few days later.
To truly embody these ideals takes time and the teams of the past two years did a brilliant job laying a foundation for success, but this year’s team took it to new levels. We said we would go on this journey together, 14 Strong, and we did. We said this wouldn't be about any one individual’s goals or desires but about the teams, and it was. We said we would play every match with unequaled passion and desire, and we did. And finally, we said we would enjoy every moment together whether it be as painful as the moment the last ball went off the court in the our semi-final loss to CMS or whether it be as joyous as the moment when Brantner stuck a forehand volley up the line to beat Amherst, and I really truly believe we did.
B-Jones post Amherst clinch!
I apologize for the tardiness of this post but nonetheless here we go. Following our brilliant win over Case Western we faced off against the host team Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (CMS)
on the morning of Tuesday the 20th. CMS's graduation had been just a few days before the match and plenty of fans had stuck around to watch their home team. I'd estimate at least 250-300 people were there cheering for the Stags and 300 exuberant college kids can create quite the raucous as well as a substantial home court advantage. 
Frons getting a pre-match good luck smooch.
I'm Ron Burgundy?
Perhaps it was the fans or perhaps it was the moment but in doubles we came out a bit flat. At #1 and #3 doubles we were down an early break and only #2 doubles was staying firmly in the match. Eventually the dynamic duos of Alex Johnston/Andrew Lebovitz and Ari Smolyar/Peter Heidrich found their ways but getting back into pro sets against extremely talented teams can be a difficult task. The #1 team was first off with an 8-5 loss as they were unable to ever recover the break. Shortly after the Johno and Lebo lost good old reliable Brantner and Palmer escaped with a 9-7 victory on a timely break to tie the match at 1-1. The doubles point would come down to #3 where the Panthers were still recovering from their 0-3 start. Ari and Pete broke to bring the match to 7-7 but were quickly broken back and CMS held for a 9-7 win.

Post doubles huddle.
Ready to bring the hammer in singles!
Heading into singles we knew we were going to have to play some top notch tennis, but fortunately this was not our first crack at being down after doubles as defending NCAA Champions Williams College had put us on the ropes just a week prior. And we came out like we'd been there before. At #1 Johno took the first 6-3, at #2 Brantner won 6-2, at #3 Palmer lost the first 3-6 but was battling with heart and determination, at #4 Ari grabbed the first 6-1, at #5 Courtney was up 7-5, and at #6 Jackson lost the first 5-7 but was looking solid. Johno quickly finished off #1 ranked Warren Wood 6-3, 6-4 to even the overall score at 2-2 and the match turned into a dog fight.
Johno wills a volley over with his mind.
At #2 singles a CMS Division 1 transfer battled back and took the second 7-6, at #3 Palmer played an unbelievable set and won 6-1 to even the match at a set a piece, at #4 Ari lost the second 7-5 to push into the third, at #5 Courtney lost the second 6-3 to push that match to a third, and at #6 Fro won 4-6 to push that match to a third. So with the scored tied at 2 matches a piece 5 third sets would decide who was headed to the championship match. And after several hours of a match that looked like it was almost certainly going to go CMS's way Midd had an opening. 
Smolyar attempts the often imitated, never duplicated, (rarely successful) tomahawk
However, as quickly as the path to victory opened up, it closed. At #3 singles a talented Stag played a determined 3rd set and won 6-2 to give CMS a 3-2 lead. At #4 singles Ari had two match points but couldn't convert and less than 5 minutes later found himself on the losing end of the 5-7 score to give the Stags a 4-2 lead and all of the sudden Midd would need all 3 matches to push this one across. But all hope was not lost. At #2 singles Brantner was on serve 3-4 and anyone who saw Brantner play this year (certainly this coach) would've bet their house that he was going to pull that one out. At #5 Courtney was up 3-0 in the third and #6 was headed to a breaker to decide the match. Unfortunately for Midd we lost the breaker and the match for a heartbreaking 5-2 loss that very well could've gone the other way.
Frons battled well all week.
Johno's dad all the way from Leeds, England.
The following day, despite another effort worthy of every Panther's applause, Midd lost another heartbreaker as it came down to the 3rd set at #4 singles and Ari had simply given too much against CMS and cramped as bad as a player can cramp. The match was difficult to watch as Ari has trained harder than almost anyone on the Midd team this year and wanted nothing more to push the final match across the line. Unfortunately his body simply wouldn't let him as even serving become an impossibility. The fact that he chose to finish the match and not retire as 99.9% of people would've done in that circumstance speaks volumes about not just Ari, but about the heart of the Panther program.
Smoly struggling to bend his leg in a scene that Lebo (bottom right) couldn't even watch.
I think I speak for all the coaches when I say we couldn't have been more proud of our boys this year and particularly our effort in the NCAA tournament. The season did not end the way we would've liked but nothing in life is guaranteed and there is no doubt we laid it all out on the line and gave our best effort. And while many on the team will get another crack at a national championship next year, for the seniors this was their last go. And for how far they pushed this team not only in terms of on court tennis talent but also in terms of leadership, maturity, passion, and simply being great people we will be forever proud and thankful. 
Bob's note: We would also like to thank the Panther parents, clearly the best tennis parents ever who traveled everywhere with us, our brilliant alumni, and our many other supporters as throughout the year we've received tremendous ongoing support. Thanks also to Jerry Lynch for his ongoing help and creativity in creating the magic that is Panther Tennis. Finally special thanks to Max for his brilliant work on this blog and to Max and Charles for your unending enthusiasm and leadership towards this year’s team.
The last win for a magical (and All-American) doubles duo.
4th place out of 300+ Division III teams ain't bad.
But Johno has higher standards...
Your 2014 Middlebury Panthers!

Thanks again so much for this year and look forward to Midd Tennis 2014-2015!

P.S. Speaking of 14-15 we will be shortly coming out with and preview of next year’s recruiting class….

-Coaches Bob, Max, and Charles