Coach: Bob Hansen, 2nd Season
Location: Middlebury, VT
2009 Ranking: T-5
2010 Ranking: 1
2011 Ranking: 9
2012 Ranking: 15
2013 Projected Ranking: 9
I’m sure I will get corrected on some of the minutia, but here’s a brief recent Middlebury history lesson. Middlebury has been a strong program for the past decade and a half. Coach Dave Schwarz arrived in the middle of Williams’ heyday for the 2000-2001 season, and spent a couple years playing little brother to the Purple Cows before turning the tables on them and winning the national championship in 2004. The Panthers got to the finals the next couple years, picking up several consecutive NESCAC championships along the way, but didn’t win the national championship again until 2010, when a roster filled with approximated 72 seniors basically dominated the entire season. (They did go 5-4 with both Amherst and Wash U that year, but most “pundits” assumed they would win the championship). Schwarz went out a winner and moved on to Brown, leaving Rob Barr to be the “interim” coach for a year when the Panther regressed. The following summer, Middlebury lured Hansen from Santa Cruz, and the Panthers proceeded to turn in their worst season in a decade. Some thought that Hansen would show up and turn them into national championship contenders immediately by magic. I admit that even I thought this was a possibility, but, realistically, there were always going to be some growing pains with the adjustment to Hansen’s coaching style, not to mention the fact that Middlebury just didn’t have the players to beat Williams and Amherst last year.
Even though last year was horrendous by Middlebury standards, the Panthers still managed to beat Pomona, qualify for the tournament, and make it to the Sweet Sixteen. That’s not going to be acceptable for Hansen, and this is the year the school is hoping to see a return on its investment in the legendary coach. It’s no secret, but I think Middlebury is going to be very, very good this year. I toyed with the idea of putting them ahead of Hopkins, Wash U, Carnegie, and CMS in my rankings, but eventually thought better of it. They return 1,2, 4, and 5 singles at least, as well as five of their doubles players and brought in two players who could jump in at the top of the lineup and bump everyone down. That’s pretty formidable, but I’ll save the rest for the lineup discussion.
With last year’s #1 Brantner Jones absent in the fall, I think due to study abroad, it’s hard to predict where the pieces will fall within the Middlebury lineup. Jones jumped from #3 to #1 in the middle of the season, and immediately proved himself to be one of the top players in the nation. He finished his season with wins over Pena, Loutsenko, and Berg, and was in a 3-setter with Kahan before the match was called in the NESCAC tournament. He’s currently ranked 12th in the country, and it will take a lot for someone to usurp him. Junior newcomer Alex Johnston might be doing enough, though. He rolled through Felix Sun in the Fall Regional before falling to eventual champ Yaraghi in an absolutely brutal three-setter. Freshman Palmer Campbell threw his hat in the ring as well by beating Micheli and advancing to the semifinals, losing to Yaraghi as well.
I would expect last year’s #2 singles player, Alec Parower to slide in the lineup at 3 or 4 this year. He was slightly less impressive than the aforementioned this fall. He went down to Kahan in a very tight match in the ITAs and won the backdraw of the top flight in the Dartmouth shootout. Parower played #1 for the first half of the 2012 season, but struggled mightily. He had a little more success at #2, but it still seems like he would be more effective lower in the lineup. If he does get pushed down to 4 by Johnston and Campbell, that should be an almost-automatic victory for them. With those four at the top, Lunghino is a shoe-in for the #5 singles spot. He had a brilliant Spring Break at #4 singles last year before fizzling down the stretch, but his improvement in doubles is bound to spill over to his singles game this spring. After that, there’s last year’s #5 Teddy Fitzgibbons, senior Will Oberrender, fellow juniors Burke and Lebovitz (a doubles starter from last year’s squad), a couple sophomores, and three more talented freshmen. Pick your poison.
When it comes to doubles, it appears Johnston and Lunghino will be the #1 team for Middlebury this year. They narrowly lost to Crampton and Bettles in quarters of the ITA before winning the top flight of the Dartmouth Shootout, impressively beating two Dartmouth teams on their way to the victory. That pairing would split up their previous #1 team of Lunghino and Jones. Jones will definitely be somewhere in the doubles lineup, but it’s hard to say who he would be paired with. He played #1 with Lebowitz for much of last year, but Hansen has shown a penchant for mixing up doubles combos. Predicting two more doubles teams at this point would be total guesswork, so I’m not even going to bother. Regardless, I expect Midd’s dubs to be much improved from last year. Doubles has always been a signature of Hansen’s teams, and it’s only a matter of time before they start dominating the first hour.
Middlebury’s first significant DIII match of the year is at home against Bates on the 9th of March. The Panthers beat the Bobcats early last season in a match that, while overlooked at the time, proved to be extremely important for Midd’s standing within Pool C at the end of the year. Nobody will be overlooking it this time around, as the Panthers narrowly edged Bates 5-4 in the NESCAC tournament, and both teams will know how much this match will mean on Selection Sunday.
Shortly thereafter, the Panthers will travel to SoCal for a 10-match-in-6-days Spring Break trip that features Whittier, UC Santa Cruz, Redlands, P-P, Wisconsin-Whitewater, and CMS. Middlebury will definitely be split-squadding the other four matches, but this is still a brutal stretch. They start on the 23rd with Whittier. As optimistic as I am about the Poets, I don’t think they pose much of a threat to to Middlebury. The next day, however, the Panthers will play the Slugs from Santa Cruz. If this were the NFL, I’m sure there would be an Around The Horn segment dedicated to the fact that Hansen will be playing his former team, and I’m guessing that will be emotional for both him and his former players. Middlebury is much better than Santa Cruz (without Nurenberg) this year, but there’s no telling how emotion will play into that one. They then run to So Cal gauntlet with matches against Redlands, P-P, and CMS. Interestingly, Middlebury is playing CMS the same day as their match against Wisconsin-Whitewater on the last day of the trip. The Panthers aren’t so good that they can afford a full split-squad against the Warhawks, and the players are bound to be exhausted from the previous eight matches. Accordingly, I just can’t see Middlebury winning that, the most important match of the trip, but we all know I’ve been wrong before.
When they get back, the Panthers jump right into their NESCAC schedule with matches against Wesleyan and Trinity (CT) on the 6th and 7th of April. In my opinion, this is perfect for them because both Wesleyan and Trinity are good enough to push Middlebury to their competitive threshold, but not good enough to threaten them. Not sure how much this matters, but that will allow them to readjust to competitive tennis in New England. The next week, they have a huge road match against Bowdoin. As I mentioned in the Bowdoin preview, that will be a huge match for both teams, and Middlebury will be hungry to get back into the NESCAC’s top 3. On April 20th (haha), they play Williams at home, and on the 27th, they play Amherst in Amherst with a Vassar/Skidmore interlude the week of the Amherst match. I know coaches don’t have a ton of control over how a conference schedule is organized, but they really couldn’t have drawn it up any better. They play the teams generally in order of increasing skill, and should be ideally prepared for the NESCAC championships.
As is indicated in my predicted rankings, I think they should be the third seed heading into the conference tournament, comfortably in Pool C position, unlike last year. Their national championship potential will depend greatly on their regional selection. They will have a hard time making the quarters if they draw Hopkins again, but if they’re ranked ahead of Bowdoin, the selection committee should be more friendly to them (though the ranking committee has made some…interesting…decisions before). Needless to say, I’m really excited to see what this team does this year. Outside of NCW, they are probably the biggest question mark in the top 25, and the team has to be excited about the season (not that any team is really dreading season). How far can they go?