Coach: Jeff Northam, 20th Season
Location: Walla Walla, WA
2009 Ranking: 24
2010 Ranking: 19
2011 Ranking: 29
2012 Ranking: 14
2013 Projected Ranking: D3West 26, D3TG 17
As you can see from the national rankings, Whitman has been all over the map for the past couple years. The reason for this, I think, is because their sample size against ranked teams is so small, which makes it very difficult to stack them against the rest of the country. Unlike some, I don’t blame Coach Northam for this. Whitman is easily the most isolated team in the top 30 (Walla Walla to Santa Cruz is 826 miles. Walla Walla to Thousand Oaks is 1,100 miles. Those are closest ranked DIII foes). That they’ve managed to stay in the conversation even after former national powers PLU and Linfield have fallen off the map is impressive. Their unique location, coaching longevity, and seemingly superior player development makes them one of the more likable teams in DIII, but their geographical handicap will probably continue to prevent them from ever making it to the Elite Eight.
Recruits don’t want to go to Walla Walla, and their school isn’t prestigious enough to attract the same calibre of players as Western rivals P-P and CMS. Without miraculous fundraising, they cannot play more than six good DIII matches in any given year, and they have to play those matches two full months before their most meaningful competition at the team nationals. At nationals, they’re further handicapped because they have to travel thousands of miles during finals week and often end up in the California regional. They should take notes from Trinity on how to deal with the travel. On the positive side, they have a monopoly on the Northwest, which basically guarantees them a spot at nationals every year and allows them to pump out all-Americans. If they have any hope of ever making the Elite Eight, they will have to start recruiting better, but until then, they will be stuck in the 15-25 range or worse.
Whitman’s success has always hinged on doubles, so let’s switch things up and start there. Andrew La Cava and James Rivers made an impressive run to the finals of the ITA Fall Nationals, and they will have to be rock solid at #1 doubles for Whitman to have a good year. After that, it’s mostly guesswork: former doubles all-American Matt Tesmond and transfer Andy Riggs were most impressive in the fall tournament. They would make, by far, the most experienced #2 doubles team. Steven Roston and freshmen Noah Lee were their third best team in the Fall tournament, but neither is very experienced. Sam Sadeghi, a #3 doubles player from last year, and Colton Malesovas, the ITA singles winner, provide another option for the Whits, but don’t be surprised if they mix and match for their last doubles spot.
Singles could be more problematic for Whitman. They appear to have lost their #2, 3, and 6 singles players from last year, but they have a wealth of options as far as depth goes. I would expect La Cava to get the nod at #1 despite losing in the Fall to Malesovas. He was decent last year for Whitman, winning against Mary Washington and Whittier, but had a hard time against the top guys. The Squirrels will need him to win more consistently because he’s one of few proven winners for them. It’s hard to say who will play #2, but my best guess would be Malesovas. He didn’t start last year, but he beat La Cava and gave Skinner a decent run in the Fall. Riggs will be in the mix for the #2 spot as well. He got to the semifinals of the Fall tournament, and beat Ben Guzick and Lunghino last year at Stevens. I would also expect Rivers to be in their top 4. He’s clearly a good doubles player, and he had a very successful year at #4 singles last year. After that, they have Sadeghi, who played #5 for them last year; Roston, who got glimpses of starting action last year; and Lee, who is the only 3-star on their roster. Needless to say, the Squirrels will need huge jumps from many of these guys to even come close to the success they had last year. The only good news for them is they tend to get those huge jumps from their players. Look for them to struggle at #2 and 3 singles this year, but be strong at the bottom of the lineup.
Schedule-making is a huge problem for Whitman, but they seem to have compiled a better, if more clustered, schedule than last year. They start on February 8th with a smattering of matches against their conference opponents. The Squirrels haven’t been seriously threatened by anyone in their conference for a couple years, so I expect them to ease through those matches. (As the West specialist, however, it is my duty to know that George Fox and Pacific will be their biggest competition. Look out for a “best of the rest” column from me some time in the near future). Their schedule really starts on March 10th against Pomona in Santa Cruz. They’re supposed to play a match two days beforehand in Oregon, these could be their first outdoor matches of the year, and they are huge underdogs anyways, so that could be a rough one for them. They play Tyler that afternoon in a match that has upset alert written all over it. Whitman could be tired from their morning match, and Tyler is MUCH, MUCH better than last year.
(Side note: They got two transfers in Ryan Ybarra and Ramon Martinez who will bump former #1 (and fellow transfer) Ryan Spencer down to #2 or 3 singles. Keep in mind that Spencer nearly qualified for nationals last year, and Patriots beat Whitman just two years ago. By getting a bunch of transfers, Coach Bizot is doing exactly what he needs to remain relevant, and their schedule is the only thing that can keep them outside the top 30 this year. #parenswithinparens)
I digress. The next day they play Santa Cruz. Cruz will want revenge for their loss last year, but this should be a very interesting match. Whitman and Cruz are very similar this year–reliance on doubles, inexperience at the bottom of the singles lineup–, and I would expect this to go 5-4 either way. After that, the Squirrels head off to Hawaii where they will play Wash U, Claremont, and Whittier. I don’t think they have much of a chance against Wash U or Claremont, but they will desperately need a win against Whittier to keep their ranking if they lose to Tyler. It will be very interesting to see how it all plays out.
Shortly thereafter, they head home to play out the string of conference matches. They should win their conference, but their ability to advance past the round of 32 will depend almost entirely on their draw. If they end up in California, no chance. If get boned like they did last year, no chance. But if they get blessed with a draw like 2011, they could get to the Sweet Sixteen, and you never know what could happen there. If they win two of their Spring Break matches (even if it’s just Whittier and Tyler), they should be ranked high enough to avoid the California regional. Personally, I think they will drop one of the matches to Whittier or Tyler, barely hold on to their ranking, get punished for their low ranking with a trip to California, and lose in the round of 32, but it could really go either way. I really like the Whitman’s team, but realistically, I expect them to regress toward their mean this year.