Middlebury is only two years removed from its dominant 2010 National Championship team, but everything has changed. None of the starters from that team are still around, and they have a new coach with a completely new philosophy. Hansen is the Phil Jackson of Divison 3 tennis, and you gotta wonder how the New Englanders will respond to the Zen Master. Having a legendary coach is good, but returning 5 out of 6 starters from a top 10 team is probably better. Peters’ graduation leaves a hole that needs to be filled, but Hansen’s teams are notoriously hard-working, and I would bet that all that hard work in the off season will have an immediate effect on at least one of the returning starters (Parower and Jones both had solid Fall seasons and are good candidates). The Panthers also brought in two Freshmen who could make an immediate impact. Last year, these same players went up against the very same Amherst lineup and came up short. Will a new coach be enough to bridge the gap between the Panthers and the Lord Jeffs? Or will Middlebury find themselves fighting with Williams for the right to play second fiddle?
Where They’ll Win
Middlebury was consistently strong in doubles last year. They won at least 2 doubles matches against every team ranked below them except Redlands (a team that sneakily had great doubles last year), and rode a doubles sweep to a victory over Williams. Hansen’s teams have always had strong doubles, so I would expect that trend to continue. They also won two matches low in the lineup against Amherst, which is pretty indicative of how deep a team they are. Since they return 5 starters and have a couple 4-stars on the bench, they will also be incredibly deep this year. If I’m wrong, we’ll find out immediately when they jump into their NESCAC schedule.
Where They’ll Lose
The Panthers will definitely be weaker at the top this year. Peters was a great #1, as you can see from his victories over Sullivan and Sun, but he’s gone now. Even with Peters, Middlebury had difficulty finding wins at the top of their lineup against good teams– see their matches against Cal Lu, Azusa Pacific, and Amherst. Middlebury might have done fine at the top of their lineup against lesser teams, but they will need to win some matches at the top of the lineup against Amherst if they want to get back the NESCAC crown. If that’s going to happen, the players like Parower and Jones need to improve immensely, because past results indicate that they just aren’t good enough.
Obviously, Middlebury doesn’t start its season until March because of the weird NESCAC rule, but they will have to hit the ground running. Their first matches big matches are against Hansen’s old nemeses P-P and CMS. I don’t expect them to beat CMS, but they might squeak out a victory against P-P; most NESCAC teams have historical struggled starting their seasons in California without match experience. After that, they jump into their NESCAC schedule, where we will really see what they are made of. If there were ever a year for Bowdoin to fight their way into the NESCAC’s top 3, it would be this year because Middlebury might experience some growing pains. On the other hand, Middlebury might thrive in the new system, and maybe I should be looking forward to a potential Sweet Sixteen match against Williams.
I really don’t want to try to make a prediction for this team, because Hansen on the East coast could go either way. I’m going to trust my basic mathematic instincts: good players + good coach = great team. They’ll sweep Bowdoin, beat P-P, beat Williams at least once, and push Amherst, but this team needs one more year to grow before it’s ready to challenge for a national