Coach: Conor Smith, 2nd Season
Location: Brunswick, ME
2009 Ranking: 13
2010 Ranking: 15
2011 Ranking: 14
2012 Ranking: 7
2013 Projected Ranking: 12
Bowdoin and Andy Murray have a lot in common. Both were overshadowed by the three dominant forces in the respective arenas, and both had breakthrough years in 2012. Murray’s year was admittedly a little bit bigger than Bowdoin’s, but just like Murray will always be judged against Rog, Rafa, and Novak, Bowdoin will always be judged against Amherst, Williams, and Middlebury. That will be the theme of the rest of this preview.
Historically, Bowdoin has had a hard time recruiting against Midd, Williams, and Herst. The four schools are all very similar on the surface– prestigious liberal arts schools competing in the same conference in the Northeast–, but the other three have the clear recruiting advantage. All three are “more prestigious” according to most rankings (whatever that means), and are generally just a little bit better known. All three also have “more desirable locations” in terms of not being in Maine. Obviously, all three schools are different in reality and have very unique things to offer their students, but some stupid high school students looking for a school in New England get lazy and dismiss Bowdoin before looking at it just because it’s in Maine. Even when good players decide to have a look at Bowdoin, it’s hard for the Polar Bears to win one-on-one recruiting battles with either of the three schools. That is basically Bowdoin’s only weakness as a program.
Other than that, Bowdoin has the best development of the NESCAC’s big four, a great coach, and facilities and resources to match any program out there. Last year, they made a huge step by getting their nose out in front of Middlebury, but with the Panthers appearing to have made huge strides on the recruiting trail, the main goal for the Polar Bears this year should be “holding serve” and staying in the top three. That will be an extremely tall task.
The good news for Bowdoin is that they only lost one starter from last year’s squad. The bad news is that he was their best player. Pena and King traded off at #1 singles for most of the season, but by the end of the year, Pena was as hot as any player in the country. The 2011 national doubles champ finished his season with victories over Bettles, Meyer (2.5 times), Kahan, and Frey, while also teaming with King for doubles wins against Williams, Trinity, and Amherst. That’s going to be extremely hard for them to replace. Last year, when they were faced with the similar challenge of replacing Sullivan, however, they came out a better team than they ever were with him.
The fact that King has already proven himself to be a capable #1 singles player takes the sting off the loss of Pena a little bit. After that, they return singles starters Lord, Grindon, Bragg, and Wolstencroft, who were all somewhat interchangeable at 3-6 last year. None of them have overwhelmingly powerful games, but all are incredibly crafty and clearly capable of winning against the best in the country. Doug Caplan, who started at #2 doubles at the end of last season, is a great option to have for the singles lineup, but they also brought in Trinka and Savage. Both top 200 players, I have a hard time believing at least one of them won’t make the singles lineup. Trinka got the nod seeding-wise in the Fall tournament, but Savage had a better showing in the Wallach.
Smith has some interesting choices to make with his doubles lineup. He had two very good doubles teams with Wolstencroft/Caplan and Grindon/Lord at the end of last year. When Smith chose to go with Grindon and Lord halfway through the year, he turned his team from a #10-#12 team to a serious contender, so it will be hard for him to separate them. Both of those teams, however, are a little too lob-happy to be successful at #1 doubles, and Smith probably doesn’t want to pair King with one of the freshmen and just throw them to the dogs in the top slot. Having two good returning doubles teams is a good problem to have, but Smith has his work cut out for him here.
I’m not sure if this is Bowdoin’s full schedule or not, but the Northeast teams seem to be a little lazy about publishing theirs, so this is all I got. Even if it is their full schedule, no complaints here. A couple years ago, Bowdoin got screwed out of a tournament bid by the NCAA and some obscure conference that forgot to file for their AQ. The selection process is ludicrous; we all know that. Nevertheless, Bowdoin has constructed their schedule so that, if they don’t make it, they have only themselves to blame.
Over the course of their season, they have matches against Carnegie Mellon, Case Western, Pomona, Redlands, Williams, Middlebury, Amherst, and Bates. Add Cal Lu and Wash U to the mix, and that’s basically a list of Pool C contenders. Between those 11 schools, one will get the NESCAC’s Pool A spot, and seven more will get Pool C spots (unless a Chicago or Whittier or Swarthmore goes nuts), so all Bowdoin has to do is win three of those eight matches to guarantee that they make the tournament. It’s not quite as simple as that, but you get the point.
They start their season against Stevens in California. Stevens has some good recruits and Bowdoin shouldn’t overlook them, but that will be a perfect warm up match. Up next, they have CMU. Bowdoin crushed the Tartans on Spring Break last year, but they will be player a very different team this time around, and will have a hard time winning that one. The day after that, they play Case Western. Case is on the rise, but until they prove otherwise, I’m not going to pick them in a big match Then, the Polar Bears get a couple days to recharge their batteries before playing P-P in the first round of the Stag-Hen. This should be a very interesting match, as the teams are basically mirror images of each other: both live in the shadow of their primary conference rival(s), both lost their #1 singles player from a year ago, and both play an energetic brand of tennis highlighted by doubles play. I talked abouthow important this match is, at length in the P-P preview, so I’ll just direct you there. The only difference is that a loss to P-P in that sets up a potential four-day-later rematch with Case in the back draw for the Polar Bears, which would be interesting to say the least. Two days after the Stag-Hen, Bowdoin will play Trinity (CT) in California (weird) in a must win match, before finishing their Spring Break against Redlands. If I’m a Bowdoin fan, that’s the match I’m most worried about. In that stretch, Bowdoin will be playing nine matches in ten days. Redlands’ red courts can be sweltering, and, until the last couple years, Redlands always seemed to pick up one huge win over an exhausted top ten opponent. Bowdoin should win, but that’s their big trap match.
When they get back from break, the Polar Bears get a couple weeks to gear up for their big NESCAC matches. Their first big one is on the road against Williams on the 7th of April. These teams played three brutally close matches last year, with the Ephs taking two out of three. Williams has the senior leadership and the home court advantage (not that that mattered in their second encounter last year) in this one, and I really think they’re the better team this year. A week later, they have a home match against Middlebury. Midd is the big mystery this year. After a disappointing first year under Hansen, the Panthers will have a completely different look this year. Bowdoin really doesn’t want to be relegated to the roll of “4th best in the NESCAC” again, so this will be a very important match. A week later, they have road matches against Amherst and Bates. Not sure what to make of Amherst this year, but Bowdoin absolutely can’t afford to lose to Bates.
In the end, I think the Polar Bears will ultimately finish fourth in the NESCAC with very close losses to Amherst and Middlebury. That should be enough to get them into the NCAA tournament, where they will probably play Amherst or Williams in the round of 16.