I’m sure d3tennisguy will publish a wrap-up of this past weekend and detailed previews of all the Final 8 matches, but I wanted to share some big picture thoughts on next week’s matches.
Going back to the beginning of the season, despite the ups, downs and upsets for most teams, I think in general we wound up doing a pretty good job as a whole predicting who’s going to be in the Final 8. If you replace Bowdoin with Middlebury, I’d say most people may very well have predicted these teams would be left standing. Obviously Wash U’s season didn’t go as planned, but the bottom line is they won some close matches when it really mattered, got a little lucky with their NCAA draw and made their 6th consecutive Final 8. Amherst, Emory, Williams and CMS were heavy favorites to be here, we knew Kenyon would be an excellent team this year and we also knew Hopkins had extraordinary talent that may help them overcome their previous NCAA nightmares. Obviously for Trinity, Midd, NCW and Cruz this isn’t how they wanted their season to end, but they all fell to very worthy opponents. I’ll do a team-by-team recap at the end of the season to review the teams that didn’t get here, but for now, let’s look at who’s left.
To me, this is Amherst’s to win and the only team that can stop them is Amherst. I see 2 things potentially going wrong for the Jeffs. The first is that they wanted it so badly last year after losing in the final 2 years in a row, that they took their game to such a high level where no one else could compete. It’s very possible they won’t enter this year with that same desperation, and a team who wants it more, say CMS or Emory, will upset them. The second possibility is that they lost their leader from the past few years in Moritz Koenig and that role hasn’t been filled. Every team needs a great leader to win a national title, and if Amherst doesn’t have one, it could spell trouble. While those are potential problems, the likely scenario is that they play great tennis just as they have the past 3 years and win the title. They are hands down the best team in NC and no one can argue with it. If every team has their average day, Amherst wins this title 10 out of 10 times. They have to have a bad day and run into someone else having a good dayto lose. Keep in mind that their #4 singles player won ITAs. This is actually the first year they had an undefeated D3 regular season, and think about how good they’ve been in the years when they lost during the regular season. Their whole team has been there before and I honestly don’t see them losing unless they beat themselves.
If you think about Wash U’s path to get here, it’s simply amazing. Everyone had them projected as a top 8 team this year, with some projecting top 5. For their standards, they bombed at Indoors and in California and were ranked 17th in the country on the outside looking in when it came to NCAAs. They lost their #5 and #6 players from Indoors, so they’re really playing with their 7 and 8 guys in those spots right now. They were down 3-0 in 2 matches that would have knocked them out of NCAAs, and came back to win both times against tough opponents. And of course, the gift of a regional that they received last week was the final icing on the cake. I don’t think they deserved it, but they didn’t make the draw so it’s really not their fault. The good news for all the haters is that they are completely overmatched against Amherst and would really need a miracle to win even 3 matches against the Jeffs. They’re a huge underdog at every spot except for maybe 1 singles, and if they play doubles the way they did against Case and CMU, they’re going to get embarrassed. Sweeping GAC is no small feat, but Amherst is going to bring a completely different level in doubles. Wash U is a prideful and confident team who will fight to the end, and I know they believe they can win, but it’s extremely clear that they are the weakest team in Cary. Their 6th consecutive Elite 8 is an excellent feat, but their D3-leading streak of 4 consecutive Final 4s will almost certainly come to an end.
One thing I worry about for Kenyon is that they haven’t seen the level of tennis they’re going to see from the Stags in about 2 months. The last time Kenyon was seriously tested was over a month ago against CMU, and even that is not like playing CMS. I don’t like putting extra weight on anyone, but Paul Burgin has to play lights out for the Lords to beat CMS. He will take part in 2 swing spots that are winnable and Kenyon desperately needs. While the Lords have been rock solid in singles, they have been down after doubles quite a few times against inferior teams and twice it’s come back to bite them. They won’t be digging out of any 2-1 holes against a team as good as CMS, however this brings me to my next problem for Kenyon. I believe the Lords have 2 glaring weak spots in their lineup, at 1 doubles and 6 singles. That puts a lot of pressure on everyone else to perform. At the other 7 spots though, I think Kenyon has a great chance and absolutely can win this match. While CMS has been excellent and clutch lately, Kenyon is extremely battle tested and most of their guys have also been there, so there’s no reason they can’t make the semis. While I believe the best Kenyon can do at this event is 3rd, they have a winnable first match and that’s the big one for them. Their 3 recent trips to the Fnal 8 have all ended in the quarters against a superior team, so this would be a huge step for their program to make the Final 4.
CMS is the least predictable team at this tournament. There’s no other way to say it. I can see them losing 5-2 to Kenyon, and I can also see them winning the whole thing. I think the most likely scenario is that they end up finishing 4th, as I believe they are probably the 4th best team in Cary, but they’ve got a very high ceiling and a very low floor. This was not the typical Stags season as they started poorly and really didn’t find their footing until about 3 weeks ago. Rather than cruising through the regular season with only 1 loss, they had several bumps in the road, and I have to think this will help them next week. They’ve got a good mix of youth and experience, but the huge shadow hanging over them is their result the last 2 years, and that’s a difficult thing to shake as a coach and as a player. They have to figure out how to use their past missteps in a positive manner heading into this year. What they do know is that they are in a very similar situation to last year entering this tournament when it comes to the draw. They are a slight favorite heading into their opening round, but they would have to play flawlessly the following 2 days to take home first place. We will find out if being away from home helps them, but one thing is for sure and that is they won’t overlook Kenyon. CMS has now established a mini-dynasty in California winning the region 3 consecutive years, but the next step is the national title match. While they would need an incredible effort to do that this year, they have definitely proven this season that anything is possible.
If Bowdoin was playing CMS or Kenyon, I would not like their chances. They have a team who has never experienced this before and a coach who has never prepared a team for a match like this. A “happy to be there” mentality comes into play for teams entering the Final 8 for the first time and somehow Bowdoin has to avoid that. Those teams always lose in the first round because more often than not, they face an opponent who’s not satisfied yet. The thing that helps Bowdoin tremendously is the fact that they are facing a very familar opponent, and one that they defeated 2 weeks before. This is the hottest and most confident team in the country right now and if they continue to play the way they’ve been playing, I think they’ve got a shot at making the final. This is the most underrated singles lineup in the country, and I don’t know what kind of goals they set in the preseason, but the key for Bowdoin is to not be satisfied with what they’ve done. They have to want more. This is a very complete team top-to-bottom facing another very complete team, and whoever steps up is going to win, because they are fairly evenly matched. I like Williams in this match because they can draw from last year, but I would not be surprised if Bowdoin ends up with another close win. Even if they are down after doubles, we know they can come back, and if I’m Emory, I definitely would not want to see this team fresh off a Williams win in the semis. This is the rubber match between two NESCACs and the question is if the new kid on the block has enough to beat the veteran.
The difference between Williams last year and Williams this year is that Williams this year is ready to get through 3 grueling matches and win a national title. Williams last year won 1 grueling match and was drained. Their players and their young coach have another year of experience under their belt and since the beginning of the season they have had the look of a team that’s ready to win it all. Yet, it’s amazing how one loss can change people’s perspective. Heading into the NESCAC semifinal against Bowdoin, people talked about Williams in the same breath as Amherst and Emory. After it, they came back to the rest of the pack. But the truth is, Williams still entered this tournament as the #3 overall seed and they still have what it takes to win this tournament. I believe they are the third best team in NC, and despite an opening round against a team that just beat them, they are more seasoned and prepared than Bowdoin. Make no mistake, Williams will not win their first match and then fall apart, they are in this to win it and they believe they can do it. They have good doubles, leadership, top players and depth, and after Amherst they are probably the most experienced team at the Final 8. When you are returning your entire team from last year’s epic win against CMS, you get an unexplainable edge against less experienced opponents, and I expect that edge to carry Williams a long way this year.
One way to shake off a reputation is to recruit an entirely new team and get a new head coach. This is exactly what Johns Hopkins did and it has worked. They had a weird season, and I wouldn’t exactly say they played to their talent, but I think most expected them to make the Final 8 this year. The impressive thing about Hopkins is they made the Final 8 despite playing awful doubles for pretty much the entire season. One thing that’s for sure is that no national titles will be in Baltimore any time soon if the Jays continue with this sort of doubles. However, if they can raise their level in that aspect of the game, this will be a very tough team to beat. Not often do you see a match where 8 of 12 singles starters will be freshmen, but that’s exactly what we are going to get when Hopkins plays Emory in the quarterfinals. My gut feeling tells me Emory is going to raise their level and blow Hopkins off the court before they know what hit them, particularly in doubles, but if Hopkins can keep the match close and steal two of the doubles matches, this could turn into much more of a battle than Emory is expecting. Similar to Bowdoin, Hopkins has to avoid the “happy to be there” mentality and be there with the intent to win it all. This is easier when you have freshmen, and if Hopkins can somehow manage to beat Emory, a team that crushed them earlier in the season, they do have the potential to win the national title. They are a huge underdog and would need some outstanding doubles play to make the Final 4, but when you have the talent that Hopkins does, anything is possible.
Of all the competitors, Emory’s situation is the most complicated. The Eagles haven’t won a national title in 5 years, and during that 5-year stretch, they’ve lost in the final 3 times. Their best team lost to a hot Cruz team in the 2009 semis and they obviously had the loss to Amherst in the 2010 quarters. While they have been the most consistent performers of any team in D3 during the past decade, as I’ve said before everything besides a national title for Emory is unacceptable. Despite their outstanding freshman class, this may be their best shot for the next couple years with Pottish and Goodwin at the top of the lineup. Pottish is playing a level above everyone else in D3 at the moment and I really don’t see him losing to anyone in singles. I think the question is can Pottish and Goodwin deliver 4 points against Amherst? Last year they only got 2 and the team lost badly and the previous year they only got 2. Their freshmen are obviously fantastic players and can hold their own against the Jeffs, but we don’t know how they’re going to react at 4-4 in the third set of a deciding match, and a clutch performance like that will be what it takes to beat Amherst. I honestly think Emory is going to make the final with relative ease, but what bothers me is that haven’t truly been pushed by a team the level of Amherst this year. Doubles will obviously be a key for them, and if they can manage a 2-1 lead against everyone they face, it’s going to be very hard to beat them. Mentally, this team is certainly ready to win it all, but I don’t think we’ve truly seen what their freshmen are made of this season. This comes down to how clutch the young guys can be and how badly Pottish and Goodwin want this title. A fluke loss in 2010 and a complete beatdown in 2011; what’s it going to be for the Eagles in 2012?