Happy Tuesday, boys and girls. It’s February, which means it’s high time for The Blog to kick into high gear. Our site is still having minor issues, but we’re coming back strong this week. Yesterday the Headmaster brought us his Mary Washington season preview, with stellar meme work. I’m not nearly that creative, so you get a ready-made gif describing the state of the Amherst Mammoths’ roster. Perhaps more than any other team in the region, Amherst was hit hard by departures. Some graduated (Zykov, Arnaboldi and more), some transferred (Burney, Marchalik and possibly more) and others whose reasons have not been reported (Owens? Paradis? Birkenfield?) However, even after sustaining heavy losses, Coach Doebler has once again brought in an amazing recruiting class (the #2 class in DIII, and TRN’s Top-12 Mid Major class, behind only Chicago.) Amherst had a very good regular season last year, but two losses to arch-rival Williams at the end of the year and at NCAAs certainly left a bitter taste in the mouths of Herst fans. Can the young squad rise to the occasion, or will we see some mammoth-sized growing pains in western MA this spring?
Location: Amherst, Massachusetts
Coach: Todd Doebler (4th year)
Asst. Coach: Noah Sprinkel (2nd year)
ITA National Ranking (as of end of 2017 season): 8th
ITA Regional Ranking (as of end of 2017 season): 5th
Blog Power Ranking: 9th
Twitter Handle: @AmherstMTennis. Reliable for in-match updates. Also was one of the first to tweet out the lineup before every match, which is hopefully becoming common practice!
Key Losses: Oscar Burney (sophomore, #5 singles/#2 doubles, transfer to CMS), Josh Marchalik (sophomore, #2 singles/#2 doubles, transfer to Georgetown), Gabe Owens (#3 singles, sophomore), Chris Paradis (sophomore), Ben Birkenfield (senior), Andrew Arnaboldi (#3 doubles, graduation), Sam Silver (graduation), Myles Tang (graduation) and Anton Zykov (former #1 player, graduation)
Key Additions: Ethan Hillis (4-star from Colorado, UTR=12.49), Kevin Ma (4-star from California, UTR=12.93), Sean Wei (5-star from New York, UTR=12.55)
Realistic Best Case Scenario: The Amherst freshmen earn their lofty UTRs by balling out, Bessette and Fung roll through wins in the middle of the lineup, somebody with a little experience holds down the anchor spot (Kaplan? Levitin?), Amherst fully buys into the nobody believes in us chip on the shoulder mentality and finishes tied for 2nd in the conference, going 2-1 against Williams, Wesleyan and Bowdoin. They not only host an NCAA regional, but advance out of it to the NCAA quarters where they stun a top 4 team and make the NCAA semifinals.
Realistic Worst Case Scenario: The freshman prove to be just that, and the seven-man rotation is brought to its knees with a single injury. Chaos ensues as more rumblings of discontent and transferring grip the team. Amherst loses early against CMU and Whitman, gets smoked by the top tier of the NESCAC, AND sustains a brutal loss against either Bates or MIT. The Mammoths fall down to about #20 in the national rankings and come nowhere close to NCAAs.
POSITIVE BOLD PREDICTION: Zach Bessette has himself a year. He was only 6-7 at #1 last year, and didn’t have an amazing fall, but I think we’re going to see a lot out of Mr. Bessette in 2018. If he does play behind Wei, he should be far more comfortable at #2 and we know just how good a doubles player he is. I think he has a great shot to make NCAAs as a doubles team (especially if he’s playing with Fung again), and will provide some MUCH needed leadership for this inexperienced Mammoth squad.
NEGATIVE BOLD PREDICTION: Amherst will miss NCAAs. This prediction brings me no joy, as I take immense pleasure in my region’s successes, but Coach Doebler’s doomsday clock is sitting at 2 minutes to midnight here. Given the immense losses and how shallow the team is, it would be quite an achievement to come out swinging early and beat CMU in a battle between two teams clawing for a Pool-C spot. Given the strength of the top of the NESCAC, even if Amherst has a fine year they will finish in 5th, leaving them NO room for error in terms of NCAAs.
POSITIVE NOT-SO BOLD PREDICTION: At least one of these freshmen is going to be the real deal. Like I said, not-so-bold, and it’s very possible that two or even all three freshmen will be studly this spring. Wei had a very impressive fall, and both Hillis and Ma showed flashes. Given how shallow the team is, all three should get a TON of match experience this spring, setting them up for even more success down the road.
NEGATIVE NOT-SO BOLD PREDICTION: We haven’t seen the last of the drama. Given the exodus we saw between last season and this one, I’m worried that any issues this year will be magnified and lead somebody down a similar path. I don’t know if it will be more transfers, or just benching, but I think it’s a safe bet that there are still some things to work through. I hope I’m wrong.
#1: Sean Wei, freshman, UTR=12.55, range: #1-3. Of the six 5-stars that began DIII last year, only one went one to be a stud (Niko Parodi, CMS). Fung, Kumar, and Owens all had good years, but not #1 years. In 2015 Sean Ko and Charlie Pei were the 5-star DIII recruits, neither has played consistently higher than #3 singles. In 2014 there were no 5-star recruits. In 2013 we only had Conrad Harron, who didn’t finish his four years on the Williams team. All this goes to show that coming into DIII as a top recruit does not mean you will play #1 at all, let alone as a freshman. This year we have a record eight 5-star recruits coming into DIII. A few have already made their mark (Lil’ Barr and Katzman), and Amherst is hoping that Sean Wei adds his name to that list. Wins over Rosen (projected Bates #1), Wolfe, (projected Bowdoin #3), Xiao (fellow 5-star freshman for Midd), Taylor (projected #4-6 for Williams), and Kogan (projected #2-4 for Brandeis) punctuated Wei’s fall, with his only losses coming to Finkelman (projected Wesleyan #2 & both times in three sets). He seems to be the real deal, and if he can play even at #1 it makes Amherst even more of a dangerous team.
#2: Zach Bessette, junior, UTR=12.43, range: #1-3. Perhaps the only guy on this team with a lot of experience playing both singles and doubles, Bessette will need to be a rock this year, likely on and off the court. As I said above, I’m expecting big things from the junior, who had a bit of a sophomore slump after a tremendous freshman finish. He and Fung were one of the best teams in the country last year, but strangely enough he played with Kaplan and Ma this fall. He did well with both partners, making the quarters of the ITA, the semis at MIT and the final at Bates. If Zach can play #2 or #3 because a freshman steps up, it makes Amherst THAT much better.
#3: Jayson Fung, sophomore, UTR=12.00, range: #1-6. And just like that, we’re at the point where I have zero clue. Fung played in the middle of the Mammoth’s lineup last spring, and went 12-4 against ranked teams including wins over Emory, Middlebury, Bowdoin and Williams. You would think he’d be a lock for a top-3 spot in 2018. However, he didn’t play at the ITA, lost two of three matches at MIT, and was playing in the C-Flight at Bates (where he lost in the finals to his teammate, Ma). There were rumors that Fung might not be back this fall either, and some of the bloggers hypothesized that might have something to do with his playing position. If he’s back and motivated, I find it hard to believe he’ll be playing #5 or #6. That being said, it’s also very likely that he starts the year down there and works his way up.
#4: Ethan Hillis, freshman, UTR=12.49, range: #2-6. Hillis has been a Blog favorite for years due to his extraordinarily famous mother. He made his debut at the ITA where he beat Victor Cheng (projected MIT #3-5) and lost 4&6 to eventual champion BG (projected Williams #1). He lost in the 1st round at MIT to Alex Taylor (projected Williams #4-6), but had a fantastic back-draw notching wins over Big Barr (projected MIT #1-2), Kyle Wolfe (projected Bowdoin #3) and Alex Vanezis (projected Midd #5-7). He played B-Flight at Bates, above Fung and Ma, but lost in the 1st round to fellow freshman Boris Sorkin (Tufts projected #3). Young Ethan played with three different doubles partners at the three different events. He found the most success with Fung at MIT, where the duo made the finals, including wins over the projected MIT #1 team and the projected Midd #2 team. A very solid fall for Hillis and we are excited to see how he progresses during his first spring campaign, even though it could be at just about any spot in the lineup.
#5: Nathan Kaplan, sophomore, UTR=11.74, range: #3-6. As a sophomore with lineup experience, Kaplan is now a ranking member of this Amherst squad. He played a lot of #3 doubles last year with solid results, but he was better than solid at the bottom of the singles lineup. In fact, he was almost Urken-esque, going undefeated in eight matches at #5 or #6 against ranked teams, including wins over Middlebury, Williams and Wesleyan. For whatever reason, he didn’t play singles at NCAAs, but he should be a fixture in the singles lineup this spring. He lost in the 1st round of the ITA to Chung (projected Williams #4-7), then had a couple really solid wins at MIT against Vanezis (projected Midd #5-7) and Samson (projected Wesleyan #4) before losing in three tight sets to Lil Barr (projected Williams #2). If he can play down at #5 or #6 again this year, I think Kaplan has the chance to be one of the best players at his spot in the country.
#6: Kevin Ma, freshman, UTR=12.93, range: #3-7. Given just how much talk surrounded both Wei and Hillis, Ma was a very pleasant surprise for me this fall. He had the unenviable task of taking on Lubo Cuba (projected Midd #1) in his 1st ever college match, losing 3&6 in the 1st round of the ITA. Kev bounced back with nice wins over Battle (projected Tufts #3-6) and Coramutla (projected Brandeis #1-5) at MIT, before falling to Chen (projected Wesleyan #1) in the Sweet 16. He absolutely ROLLED through the C-Flight at Bates to cap off his fall, winning the tournament without losing more than four games in a match. He beat out Justin Wang (projected Bowdoin #6-7) in the semis and teammate Fung in the finals. I think it would behoove Amherst to ease their freshmen in a bit when possible, so I have Ma as the Mammoth anchor to start the year. However, it’s easy to see him playing in the middle of the lineup as well.
Also in the mix: Jesse Levitin, junior, UTR=11.61, range: #4-7. Levitin didn’t play at all this fall, so I’m assuming he was abroad. Like Kaplan, he had a very good year at the bottom of the lineup for Amherst, winning matches against Wesleyan and Williams (twice). Jesse is more of a singles player than a doubles guy, and certainly has a huge head-start on the other juniors who comprise the rest of the team. If he can shake off the rust, he will likely see plenty of playing time this spring. Other than Jesse, Amherst has four other juniors on the roster, non of whom has really contributed on the court in any sort of important match. Jon Heidenberg, Oliver Kendall, Cam Raglin and Justin Sun comprised a good portion of last season’s Amherst B-team. This fall, we didn’t see any action from Heidenberg, Raglin or Sun, and what we saw from Kendall left something to be desired. Maybe we see one of these guys come back from abroad and fill into the bottom of the lineup, but my guess is the top seven comprise the singles lineup for the entire year.
Amherst’s season is still over a month away, but let’s take a look at their 2018 schedule. Apparently the Mammoths’ season starts at Skidmore on Sunday March 11th, however I’m very skeptical of this. 1) The match is listed at Skidmore, but Amherst has a match against CMU IN CALIFORNIA the very next day, AND 2) because the match isn’t listed on the Skidmore site. If these teams don’t play then, Amherst’s first match will actually be against CMU in Cali on Monday, March 12th. Nice for CMU that it gets the Mammoths on their first match. Bad for CMU that they will be coming off a tough match against Wash U and won’t be quite as fresh. If our projections are correct, it’s likely a match that both teams will look back on as one of a few deciders for Pool-C. Both will have plenty of other matches giving them many shots, but this first one is mighty important.
It doesn’t get any easier from there, as Amherst takes on Whitman on Tuesday, Wash U on Thursday, and CMS on Saturday. The matches are nicely spread out, but realistically a 2-2 week should be considered ok for Amherst, and keep the Mammoths in a decent spot with regards to the postseason. Even though it’s just the middle of March, we will have a MUCH better idea of the Pool-C picture by then given Indoors, the Stag Hen, CMU’s week and some of the NESCAC spring break results. Amherst’s travel doesn’t stop with Cali, their next matches are at the end of March at Swarthmore, where the Mammoths will compete in a fun weekend round robin with Case and Kenyon (although not Swat, who will also play Case and Kenyon.) Even if they struggle early on, Amherst should be favored in both of these matches.
After Pennsylvania, Amherst returns to the friendly, and likely indoor, confines of the Northeast. They start with a Maine trip to Bates and Bowdoin, followed by hosting Conn and MIT. The Mammoths should win at least three of those matches, but both MIT and Bates (especially at Bates) do present some challenges. The following weekend is a little change of pace, as Amherst hosts EMORY and goes to Wesleyan and Hamilton. I love scheduling the Emory match because there will likely be nothing to lose AND you might get a crack at a top-5 team on your indoor home courts. Amherst will probably be an underdog against Wesleyan, and that might be the first time that sentence was every written with regards to tennis! The Mammoths close out the regular season with a doozy of a weekend, going to Williams and Middlebury. Depending on how the season has gone, Amherst might need to win one of those matches to get themselves on the right side of the bubble.
NESCACs could present Amherst with a real opportunity, as the Mammoths get to host the conference tournament in May. If they need a win to make NCAAs, it means they are likely the No. 5 seed and will have a great chance to pull an upset in their quarterfinal match. Obviously, it would be a shock if Amherst didn’t make NESCACs, but the fact that they’re not playing Tufts this spring leaves them a smaller margin for error. Everybody should know by now that no match in the best conference in the country is a forgone conclusion, and it wouldn’t be THAT shocking to see Amherst end up as a top-3 team in the conference. However, as of right now I see this team as one of three or four fighting for the last Pool-C spot or spots and a shot at NCAAs. If they do find their way into NCAAs, they will be a team that NOBODY wants to face.
As I said above, we’re doing our best to hit it and hit it good in February. Look out for a CCIW conference preview, a GAC preview, a Chicago preview, a Whitman preview, AND A SPRING BREAK WALLA WALLA PREVIEW, as we get our first big DIII action of the spring, including #11 Redlands @ #13 Whitman on Friday afternoon! After that, THE COUNTDOWN TO INDOORS BEGINS. Get excited people, that means it’s almost DraftKings time!!!!!