Happy 2018, boys and girls! After an unplanned New Years hiatus, the other bloggers really need to get their priorities in line, we’re back with more 2018 Season Previews. I couple weeks ago I waxed poetic about Wesleyan and the lofty weight that comes with new expectations. D3AS called me “extra,” whatever that means, so I’ve decided to keep my intros a bit simpler. Middlebury good. Farrell back. Freshmen talented. Senior leadership. Lubo #1. Coach Hansen. Panthers 2018 NCAA title favorites. No title, bad season.
Location: Middlebury, Vermont
Coach: Bob Hansen (7th year at Midd, 37th year overall!!!!!!!)
Assistant Coach: Andrew Thomson (1st season as the asst. coach for Midd, but the dude is a legend on both coasts)
ITA National Ranking (as of end of 2017 season): #3
ITA Regional Ranking (as of end of 2017 season): #1
Blog Power Ranking: #2
Twitter Handle: @middtennis. Pretty good with score updates. Twitter persona is surely that of a Midd Kidd.
Key Losses: Hamid Derbani (#3 singles/#2 doubles) & Allen Jackson (#6 singles).
Key Additions: Andre Xiao (5-star from California with a UTR of 12.03), Nate Razor (4-star from Texas with a UTR of 12.11), Adam Guo (4-star from Washington with a UTR of 10.92), and Thorne Gregory (3-star from North Carolina with a UTR of 11.15 and one of the best new names in DIII).
Realistic Best Case Scenario: Cruising to this stage, and looking damn good while doing it.
Realistic Worst Case Scenario: Barring some drastic unforeseen circumstance, it is HIGHLY unlikely that Midd doesn’t make at least the NCAA Quarterfinals, so let’s start there. I guess it’s possible that they get a tough matchup with another powerful NESCAC team in the quarters like a Williams or a Wesleyan who pulls off the upset.
POSITIVE (NOT SO) BOLD PREDICTION: Midd will win at least one of the three national titles this year. Ok, this is VERY not bold considering they are the favorites to win the team title, and Cuba won both the singles and doubles titles last year. That being said, do you know when the last time was we had a back-to-back champ in any of the individual events? I’ll give you a hint, his name rhymes with Shmeeberger.
NEGATIVE (NOT SO) BOLD PREDICTION: Midd will lose a match before NCAAs. To some this may seem bold, and to others this will seem obvious, but I think it’s somewhere in-between. As of now, Midd should be favored in every match they play, but wait till we hit the schedule section of the preview. Midd has to play at CMS, at Williams, at Wesleyan and Emory at a neutral site. That’s playing away from home against four of the likely top 7 teams in the country. Then there’s NESCACs. Losing a regular season match can turn into a positive, especially if some Panthers fall victim to a hubris-laced dose of complacency.
POSITIVE BOLD PREDICTION: Midd will get three singles players into NCAAs. It may not seem so bold on the surface given the extreme talent at the top of this lineup, but to get over 1/3 of the spots from the most talented region would be special and I highly doubt has ever happened in the NE. This is only possible because of two things. #1) The fall rankings. Schlanger, who is slated to play #4, is currently the 8th ranked player in the region, and Farrell is sitting at #11. That’s a great starting point. #2) The new Wild Card system. Last year the NE got nine guys into the singles draw, claiming two of the four Wild Card spots. If the region can get nine guys again this year, Midd has a real shot. If Coach Hansen lets Cuba rest a few matches and gives De Quant/Farrell/Schlanger a chance to play some quality opponents, the Panthers have a realistic chance at an NCAA Triumvirate.
NEGATIVE BOLD PREDICTION: Midd will have trouble and changeover at the bottom of their lineup. I’ve already talked about the talent ad-nauseum and we haven’t even gotten to the lineup prediction yet, but think of the guys in the running to play 5 & 6, Van der Geest, Vanezis, Xiao, Eazor, and possibly more. Unless a couple of those guys take a stranglehold on those spots early in the spring, I would be surprised if all four gents don’t get some crack at the lineup. That competition can fuel improvement, but too much fuel and on comes the explosion of doubt. Every match ends up feeling like it could be your last and that pressure can be very tough, whether it’s your first or possibly your last chance at the lineup.
#1: Lubomir Cuba, junior, UTR=13.20, range: #1-2. While Cuba had a great fall, he was not invincible. Let’s take a second and remember that fall tennis doesn’t quite carry the same weight as spring tennis in the DIII world, but thoe who expected The Dictator to come out and run through all his competition this fall were disappointed (#TheFink). Cuba did win the A flight at Midd, picking up really good wins over Gupte (projected Tufts #1), De Quant (see below) and Rosen (projected Bates #1). At the ITA he played some close early matches, took out Raghavan (projected Williams #3) in 3-sets in the 3rd round, TROUNCED Tercek (projected Bowdoin #1) in the quarters, and then didn’t have enough gas to take down Finkelman (projected Wes #2 in the semis). 8-1 overall with wins over three projected #1 guys in the region is a damn good fall, and something tells me either Lubo nor Hansen is all that worried.
#2: Will de Quant, senior, UTR=12.63, range: #1-4. Already things get a little trickier in terms of lineup prediction. If you think I’m crazy for not having Farrell in the #2 spot, then y’all don’t know Billy the Kid. Hard worker who has gotten significantly better in each of his first three years. Following up an All-American junior spring, De Quant went 10-3 this fall with losses to Cuba, Finkelman, and Lil Barr (projected Williams #2), all of which came on later days in longer tournaments. Not one to beat himself, De Quant had wins last year over Alhouni (projected GAC #1), Morkovine (graduated), Jemison (projected Emory #1) and Grodecki (TWICE-projected Williams #1). That’s about as impressive as it gets. We know he and Cuba are also rock solid on the doubles side of things (if you think winning NCAAs qualifies as rock solid), and though this fall was not their best doubles, I expect de Quant to have another exceptional year on both sides of the lineup.
#3: Noah Farrell, junior, UTR=12.48, range: #1-4. The biggest wild card of the Midd lineup, just going to show that big things can come in small packages. Farrell’s return to DIII action had its ups and downs, and in the end he did about as well as we could have expected. He beat the guys he was supposed to, and lost really good players in Rosen and Grodecki. The oddest result was a 3-set loss to teammate Kyle Schlanger, but as you’ll see shortly Kyle balled out this fall. There was obviously going to be rust, and its unfair to expect Farrell to come back just like the player he was. That being said, if he’s not a lock at #3, that will be a disappointment to Midd fans and put a slight damper on all of these “just give them the trophy now” talks. One pleasant surprise from Farrell’s return this fall was his doubles performance. He had fine doubles results as a sophomore, but winning five matches in a row with Peter Martin to make the finals of the Regional ITA was quite exciting. That being said, the duo also lost in the 1st round at Midd and MIT. As I said, ups and downs.
#4: Kyle Schlanger, senior, UTR=12.58, range: #3-4. Ho-hum, another Midd Kidd in the top 4 of the singles lineup, another guy who had a really solid fall. Schlanger is sitting at #8 in the region right now, after a fall where he took down Farrell, Finkelman, Cheng (projected MIT #3-4) and Kogan (projected Brandeis #1-4). His only losses came to players who finished last year in the top-6 of the region: Chen (projected Wesleyan #1), Rosen and De Quant. Schlanger, fairly quietly I might add, had a phenomenal junior spring for Midd, going 17-4 with wins over Emory, CMS, Bowdoin, Wesleyan and Williams (2x). However, he only was 3-3 in his final six matches of the year and was just 2-2 in postseason play. In fact, he’s just 1-4 once Midd has reached the NCAA Quarterfinals over the past three years. Schlanger’s late season play will go a long way in determining Midd’s postseason success (or lack there of) in 2018.
#5: Timo van der Geest, senior, UTR=12.05, range: #5-7. That’s where the certainty ends for the Panthers’ lineup. While I’m not confident enough to bet on who will be playing which spot, I would be shocked if the guys listed above were not the top-4 in some order. TVG is my choice for #5 right now as he had a good fall and has the experience edge over his younger competitors. The Geest played just over .500 ball last spring mainly slotted in at either #4 or #5. However, this fall he played some of his best tennis, winning the B flight at Midd, taking out Kyle Wolfe (projected Bowdoin #3) in the first round of ITAs, and winning a bunch of matches in the back-draw of the MIT tournament (including Fung & Hillis from Amherst) after falling to Raghavan in the 1st round. TVG notched wins over both Xiao and Vanezis at the Midd Tournament, giving him the direct upper hand to accompany his experience edge, however, if he plays .500 tennis like last year, expect Coach Hansen to give his younger guys a shot at the bottom of the lineup.
#6: Alex Vanezis, sophomore, UTR=11.76, range:#5-7. I thought Vanezis would break into the starting lineup last year, but TVG and the recently graduated Allen Jackson held strong. Alex did play in more than a few dual matches last spring, going 9-1 against DIII competition including top-25 wins over GAC, Bates, Brandeis and UT-Tyler. This fall, Alex stepped his game up, earning wins over Bessette (projected Amherst #1-4), Coran (projected Tufts #3-5) and Battle (projected Tufts #3-6) and getting wins over Alex Cauneac (projected MIT #1-3) and Michael Zhao (projected MIT #5-7) at the MIT Invitational. Alex also made the finals of the B-Flight at Midd, before losing to TVG 11-9 in the superbreaker. Vanezis was often referred to as the most talented Panther in his year, and if he’s taken even a small leap he should be ready to start the year in the lineup. I doubt we’ll see much of him in doubles, but if we don’t see him in singles then look for a freshman to get the starting nod.
Also in the mix: Andre Xiao (freshman/UTR=12.03), Nate Eazor (freshman/UTR=12.11), Peter Martin (junior/UTR =11.48). Xiao and Occam’s Eazor are right in the thick of things. It’s very possible that either one could be in the starting lineup if the season started today, that’s how close this is. Both guys had good falls, with Eazor impressing a little bit more given all the hype surrounding Xiao, 2017’s top recruit. Nate beat Coran (Tufts #3-6) and Tyler Barr (projected MIT #1-2) and lost to Alex Taylor (projected Williams #4-7). Xiao had a solid run in the B-Flight at the Midd Tournament, and lost in the 2nd round of the MIT Invite to fellow five star recruit Sean Wei (projected Amherst #1-4) in 3-sets. Both guys will be staples in this lineup for years to come, and my guess is that one will be there come May, but as of January they are on the outside looking in. Peter Martin is mentioned here for his doubles prowess. He was in the doubles lineup last year and ended the year with six straight wins including Bowdoin, Williams, Skidmore, GAC, and CMS. He will very likely be in at #2 or #3 doubles again this spring. Midd has some other talented guys like Brach, Samets and Sutton, but given just how talented/deep the team is this year, I don’t see any of them having a great chance of cracking the singles lineup. However, given that Midd graduates three lineup guys in May, there will be plenty of chances next year!
Now this looks like a well-constructed schedule. Not that anybody should be surprised by that, we are dealing with a legendary coaching duo. Midd opens the year by hosting Bates and Babson on the same day, taking on Colby at a neutral site, and then battling at MIT and Brandeis on the same day. That last bit is somewhat ambitious considering both MIT and Deis are top-20 teams at the moment, but Midd is deep and even with resting 1/2 the lineup they really should be just fine. The only way Bates would give Midd any trouble would be on the Bobcats’ home courts, so look for Midd to roll through the first five matches with no score closer than 7-2.
After the early dive, Midd is going going back back to Cali Cali. Unlike Wesleyan, Midd has a few warm up matches against non-DIII competition before taking on Cruz and PP on consecutive days. The only thing that worries me slightly here is that Midd plays four matches in four days, but they will have been in Cali for the better part of a week by the time their match with PP rolls around. After that, their only other DIII match is four days later at CMS. This will be one of (if not the) best match of the regular season, and we will know a little more about both teams’ title chances after that one plays out.
A week off and the Panthers return to Vermont to get into the meat of their NESCAC schedule. They start with a tough first weekend at Williams and at Tufts. If you’re dedicated enough to have read this far into the preview than you’re dedicated enough to know that Williams looks mighty good right now. To go play at Tufts after what should be an emotionally and physically draining match is no picnic. Midd gets Bowdoin and Skidmore at home the following weekend. Some people are a little down on Bowdoin after their mediocre fall, but this could very easily end up being a battle for the top-spot in the conference. Things don’t get any easier when Midd goes Trinity to play EMORY and then goes to Wesleyan the following day. Finally the Panthers host Amherst to conclude the regular season. As I said earlier, barring any big changes Midd will be favored to win every NESCAC match they play. That being said it would be more than impressive for them to make it through @CMS, @Williams, @Tufts, vs Bowdoin, vs Emory and @Wesleyan without a blemish.
Although I used my best Frankenstein voice, I said it in the intro that anything short of a title this year would be disappointing for Midd. Don’t get me wrong, even after graduating WDQ, Schlanger and TVG this May, Midd will still be good in years to come. That being said, this is the best chance they’ve had to win it all since the extremely dominant 2010 team with Peters, Lee, Olson, and yes, ASSISTANT COACH ANDREW THOMSON (who earned two points for Midd in the championship match against Amherst that year). They are the favorites to win it all this year, and at this point I might actually consider taking the Panthers in a straight up bet against the field (which I would almost never do in January).