Bowdoin is a team that finds itself in a difficult position within the current D3 landscape. They essentially have no chance at winning their conference, and they continually have to compete with the stacked NESCAC to get a pool C bid. Put them in any conference outside the UAA and SCIAC, and they could be conference champs. We don’t know; they hardly ever get the chance to play against good teams outside their conference. Unfortunately for them, they have been the 4th best team in the NESCAC for the past two years, and that puts them in a very precarious situation when it comes to making it to the NCAAs. They haven’t beaten the NESCAC “top 3″ for the past three seasons, but they also haven’t gotten upset by the likes of Trinity or Bates. The Polar Bears kind of remind me of Andy Murray in that sense. He can almost beat the big three, but he never does, and he never loses to anyone else. Like Murray, the question with Bowdoin has to be: can they get over the hump?
Where They’ll Win
I don’t think any team relied as much on one player last year as Bowdoin relied on Stephen Sullivan. He was rock solid at #1 singles, and half of a great #1 doubles team. When they came close to beating Williams teams, it was because he won both of his matches. When they needed someone to get an easy win against an upset-minded MIT, it was Sullivan. And in both disappointing losses to Middlebury, Sullivan lost both of his matches. He’s gone now, but the Polar Bears return the heart of their lineup, which competed well against everyone in the country last year. Whoever takes Sullivan’s position, whether it’s Lord, King, or Pena is probably going to struggle, but I think Bowdoin is going to be particularly strong in the #2-5 positions. They are bringing in a great recruiting class, so they will probably be strong all the way through the bottom, but Bowdoin is one of those teams that has 4 or 5 players that are essentially even. Whoever plays #4 is going to be essentially as good as whoever plays #1, which is great for the #4.
Where They’ll Lose
There’s another way to look at that previous statement. Whoever plays #1 is going to be essentially as good as whoever plays #4, which is horrible for the #1 player. In their Fall match against Concordia, Pena played 1, and if he stays there, he’s in for a rough season. It can’t be easy going up against all the best players from all the NESCAC schools, both physically and mentally. They will compete throughout the lineup against everyone, but as a team, they will need to find at least a couple wins from their #1 spot to have a good season. Right now, I predict that they will struggle finding those wins.
The good news for Bowdoin is that they will be playing a ton of out-of-conference matches against highly-ranked teams in California this year. That means they will have several chances to solidify their pool C bid. They will be playing at least 4 out-of-conference teams ranked ahead of them in Trinity (Tx), Kenyon, Wash U, and one or two other teams from the Stag-Hen. They also play CMU and Salisbury, who are ranked below them but offer good competition and some opportunities for indirect wins. If I’m a Polar Bear, however, I’m really concerned about the CMU match. Because of the wacky NESCAC rule that says they can’t play until March, it will be their first match of the season, and it will be played outdoors in the toasty California sun. The Polar Bears didn’t thrive in California last year, and a loss could be devastating for their Pool C chances. We saw how close they came to getting upset by MIT and Skidmore last year, so we know that it’s possible. On the other hand, they undoubtedly played their best tennis in the Northeast last year, so I would say their best opportunity to pull off a massive upset is at home against Williams on April 28th. The match could have some serious NESCAC seeding implications, so both teams should be fired up.
Bowdoin’s recruiting class is good, and they have great senior leadership, but I feel like Sullivan was too valuable to them last year, and I think they’ll struggle a little bit at the beginning of the year without him, as they try to put together cohesive doubles teams. I think they will get upset by CMU because of lack of match experience, and then, they will have to press to get their Pool C bid back the rest of the trip. I think their only chance to make the tournament is by leapfrogging someone in the NESCAC standings, which they will have to do by beating Middlebury on the road or Williams at home, because if they end up with the #4 seed in the NESCAC, they have no chance to get past Amherst. I like the Polar Bears, and I hate the NCAA system, but I think they might get shafted again this season. I kinda hope they prove me wrong.