2011 was somewhat of a break out year for the Maroons. They finally shed their “talented but unsuccessful” label, beat Wash U, and made the NCAA tournament via Pool C, which is a hell of an accomplishment. Personally, however, I feel like that “success” is somewhat overstated. A team with six 4-stars on their roster, along with a couple 3-stars and a few talented international players should not be ranked outside of the top ten. Chicago has always been notorious for behaving like thugs on the court, and, even though they like to think of themselves as the most intimidating team in D3, I don’t think their behavior is helping them. One of their players actually walked out on a match against Brandeis two years ago, which might have cost them a trip to the NCAAs. Objectively, it’s really sad that a player would give up on his team like that, but for the teams in D3 that hate Chicago, that was hilarious. The Maroons have an interim head coach this year, and it’s possible that Coach Bertrand will put an end to those antics. If she does, maybe the Maroons will start finally living up to their potential. I don’t know if the attitude is actually to blame for the fact that Chicago continues to underperform, but, while they may not be the most intimidating team to play against, they are definitely one of the most mystifying story lines in D3.
Unlike the other teams I’ve been previewing, the Maroons have actually played a competitive match this Spring already. Even though it wasn’t against a fellow D3 team, their match against Illinois (Chicago) should indicate what their lineup will look like this year. They lost their #1 player from last year in Will Zhang, but that might actually not hurt them that much. While Zhang was capable of beating anyone in D3, he also had a reputation for cramping and could lose to anyone also. They return the rest of their lineup, and it looks like Brinker might be taking up the mantle at #1 singles.
Where They’ll Win
That was a long intro, so I’ll keep this brief. The Maroons were much stronger at the bottom of their lineup last year than they were at the top. In fact, Stefanski was damn near undefeated playing #5 and #6. I don’t want to call that a stack. Instead, I would say that’s just what happens when you have enough 4-stars on your roster to slate a couple of them in the bottom positions. Though Chicago might get weaker at the top this year due to Zhang’s graduation, they should remain just as deep, as they’ve added a 4-star freshman, who started at #5 in the first match. Not even the top teams in the country should bank on beating the Maroons in the 4-6 singles spots because they have the depth to match anyone.
Where They’ll Lose
Maybe I’m putting too much weight on the CMU match from last year, but it seems like the Maroons were pretty vulnerable at the top positions last year. Sure, Zhang and Szabo were capable of picking off some of the top ranked players, but they lost most matches against the bigger names. Without Zhang, that could be an even bigger problem for Chicago. Hopefully for the Maroons, the talented sophomores will have benefitted from their first year of college tennis, and are ready to make a leap. If not, they will still be very beatable at the top.
Chicago has pretty much the same schedule as they had last year, with the huge addition of Indoors. They have to avoid the early season upset this year against either Kalamazoo or Wisconsin-Whitewater. (Neither team should be anywhere close to the Maroons, but Chicago almost lost to Denison last year, so anything is possible). Such a loss would be devastating to their Pool C chances. Chicago’s first round opponent at Indoors should be very familiar. It’s Wash U. I would predict that Wash U would win that one, barring a doubles sweep, which would leave Chicago in their biggest match of the year against the loser of Trinity/Cruz. If Chicago can win that match, they can basically assure themselves of a Pool C bid, as long as they can “hold serve” the rest of the season, so to speak. If they can’t get that one, they will have to hope for an upset in the UAA championship, or a situation where they pick up some indirect wins by beating CMU.
You’ll notice that I didn’t mention doubles in the strengths/weaknesses section. That’s because they were so inconsistent last year that it’s impossible to designate doubles as either for the Maroons. Nonetheless, their success this year will be largely dependent on their ability to put together one great doubles match. Their season-defining victory against Wash U last year happened largely because of a doubles sweep, but they also almost lost their Pool C bid when they were swept by Depauw and beaten by Denison. It will take more consistent doubles play for the Maroons to keep their ranking and their Pool C bid, because they probably won’t be able to recover from a doubles sweep again this year. As for the prediction, I think either CMU, Redlands, or Depauw is going to leapfrog Chicago and steal their Pool C bid, leaving Chicago back where they were two years ago: in the top 20, but not in the tournament.