I was gonna write a made-up story and lead into a Redlands preview, but it ended up with everyone dead at the end, so I switched teams. (I’m tired and so are my lead-ins)
Coach: Ben Belletto, 107th season
Location: Whittier, CA
2011 Ranking: NR
2012 Ranking: 26
2013 Ranking: 21
2014 Projected Ranking: 28
I took a lot of flak last year for giving Whittier too much attention, but can we please take a second to recognize how close they were to pulling off a truly incredible breakthrough season? They had a 6-3 loss to Case with two three-set losses and a tiebreaker loss in doubles. They had a 6-3 loss to Whitman in which they went 0-3 in tiebreakers and lost a 3-setter. They had a 6-3 loss to Middlebury in which they lost both three-setters. They had a 5-4 loss to Cal Lu in which they lost #3 doubles in a tiebreaker after being up big, and they lost a 5-4 match to P-P in the SCIAC tournament after Allinson and Sabel went all Greg Jennings, put the team on their back, won #1 doubles in a tiebreaker and won a 3-setter apiece. If they take any two of those matches, they’re in the top 15 right now, and we’re all talking about the breakout team from last season. So yes, they were very, very close, but we all know how much close counts for.
Moving into the new season, they have a lot of good things going for them and one fatal flaw. In the positive column, they’ve got a phenomenal new coach. Now that he’s gone, I don’t feel that bad saying that Coach Bojalad was among the worst coaches in DIII. They’ve upgraded to one of the best coaches in DIII, and Sean Payton has shown us what a difference a good coach can make. They will also benefit from all the experience they gained last year and a semester of training under Belletto.
We’ll cover the bad in lineup analysis.
Key Losses: Julian Seneviratne (1 singles, 1 doubles), Matt Herron (4 singles, 3 doubles), Andrew Hansen (2 doubles), Bo Brynteson (6 singles)
Key Additions: Troy Chavez, Mark-Anthony Kenney, Tyler Linscott, Aren Wilson, Joseph Laguna
Last year, the Poets were exactly 8 deep with a huge drop-off after that. If you take away 4 of those eight players, you’re gonna have a hard time. Obviously, the biggest loss will be Seneviratne. Seneviratne started off as a good singles player and evolved into a solid doubles force as his career progressed. Even though he didn’t win a ton of matches at #1, his presence in the lineup bumped everyone down to a more manageable position. Herron quietly became one of the better #4 singles players in the country last year, and he is the other severe loss on that list. The Poets could certainly use those other players, but they are replaceable with good development.
Moving on to players that will actually be playing this season, it all starts with Konstantinov. The dude was top 10 #2 singles player last year, and he appears to have made some significant improvements in the offseason. In the ITA, he got to the finals of the singles and the semifinals of the doubles, picking up several impressive wins along the way. He’s going to have to be phenomenal if the Poets are going to be successful this season.
Coming in at #2 will be senior Chris Schommer. The streaky Coloradan has picked up some impressive victories over his career, but he has also been routined in several key matches. He needs to be more consistent, especially in his role as Konstantinov’s doubles partner. Any day when he plays well will be a good day for the Poets.
#3 will probably be the sophomore Sam Farmer. The classic serve-and-volleyer didn’t have a great freshman campaign at #5 last year, but I think he has a lot of upside. Needless to say, he will need to capitalize on that upside this season if Whittier is going to move into the top 20.
After that, things get a bit dicier for Whittier. They have Shogo Shimizu, who was a great #6 as a freshman, but he had a hard time staying healthy last year and struggled when he did play. After that, they will be relying on a smorgasbord of 2-star freshmen. For the most part, these guys got throttled in the ITA, but I’m sure they will have improved over the course of the fall. Based on fall results, it appears that Chavez and Kenney are the two most likely candidates for those last two singles spots.
In doubles, the Poets will be relying pretty heavily on Schommer/Konstantinov. They will be a great #1, but the bottom two spots will be a little more problematic. Farmer needs to capitalize on his doubles potential and become a rock at #2 without whoever he plays with, and they need to get lucky and find some good chemistry at #3. Overall, I would say Whittier is severely undermanned this season, and they desperately need to come up with a good recruiting class this year before the brief window opened by the combined efforts of Seneviratne and Carregha closes.
They picked off just about everyone team making their annual pilgrimages to So Cal. I don’t know how to say this, but I just don’t have a lot of faith in this team right now. I feel like P-P, Redlands, Cal Lu, and Whitman are all on one level, and Whittier is just below that level. Konstantinov can only win so many matches, and (with the possible exception of Cal Lu), those other West region teams are just way deeper. They could pick off any of those matches, but I honestly see them losing all of those by a 6-3 score. I obviously have them losing big to CMS, bringing me to their three biggest matches of the year.
They start off with Bates. The Bobcats are certainly deeper than the Poets, but Whittier will have a couple things going for them in that one. They’ve got home court advantage, and they will be playing against a team getting used to outdoor tennis. If Konstantinov can neutralize Berg, they could pull that one out, but I think the Bobcats will pull out a 5-4 win to make their Spring Break worthwhile. There other two huge matches are West-region tilts with UC Santa Cruz and Texas Tyler. All three teams have depth problems with decent players at the top of the lineup. The way I see it, Cruz and Whittier are evenly matched, but Whittier will pull it out because of their superior experience. Tyler is the exact same story. The way their teams look right now, I would take Whittier in a 5-4 match, but I don’t think Tyler will have the same team in the season that they had in the fall, and one more player will push the Pats over the edge.
In conclusion, the Poets are a young team with a great coach who will work very hard and learn a lot from this season. I hate to be negative, but I think they are a little outgunned this season. With a year of experience and a good recruiting class, they will be back in the top 20 conversation, but I just don’t think this is their season.
Best Case Scenario: They beat Bates, Cruz, Tyler, and sneak one out on one of the four other West-region teams they play and somehow manage a top 20 season.
Worst Case Scenario: They lose to Bates, Cruz, and Tyler and fall out of the top 30.