Tennis tests themselves against nation’s best

Max Kaye '14 and Swarthmore look to use their tough spring break competition as a source of strength
Max Kaye '14 and Swarthmore look to use their tough spring break competition as a source of strength
Max Kaye ’14 and Swarthmore look to use their tough spring break competition as a source of strength

As millions of Americans filled out their NCAA Basketball Tournament brackets this week, a recurring dilemma likely cropped up for many of them. Whether one should put faith in a team like Wichita State, who went undefeated but did not face a single ranked opponent, or whether one would be better served supporting a battle-tested but blemished team like Louisville is part of what makes March Madness so captivating.

Flipping the perspective from that of a fan to that of a coach, the decision of who to schedule in nonconference play is an important determinant of any college team’s success, regardless of the sport. The debate about easy victories versus challenging competition is resolved differently depending on the coach, the team and the season.

Under head coach Mike Mullan, Swarthmore’s men’s tennis team has made playing brutally tough nonconference opponents a staple of its nationally competitive program. These early season matches put Swarthmore in a win-win situation. If they are victorious against top 25 opponents, the team can expect to move up in the rankings. But even if they lose, the matches prepare Swarthmore for success in Centennial Conference play.

Swarthmore dropped all four of their matches during their spring trip to Southern California, all against ranked opponents. Players have nevertheless recognized several positives of the experience. For Anthony Collard ’14, the difficult schedule was a beneficial, despite the disappointing results. He pointed out, “This aggressive scheduling has prepared us well for the rest of the season and conference play.”

Dropping four consecutive matches, no matter the opponent, can be demoralizing to a team. Instead, however, Garnet players are well aware that the matches were just the first step on the road to a successful season. Dan Park ’14 stressed that “although our results weren’t favorable, we showed that we can hang with some of the best teams in the nation.”

The week was especially important simply due to geography: as Collard pointed out, “This was our first time playing outdoors since early October, which makes a huge difference.” Additionally, the team’s freshmen gained valuable playing experience by testing their mettle against some of the nation’s best.

Several team members did emerge victorious in their matches. Against 16th ranked Pomona-Pitzer, Collard outlasted his competition, winning 6-1, 3-6, 10-6. In the team’s most recent match, against 18th ranked Gustavus Adolphus, Max Kaye ’14 shined, winning his singles match in straight sets, 7-6, 6-3, and emerging victorious in doubles alongside Harrison Lands ’15. Irving Stone ’15 notched a straight set victory against the Golden Gusties as well.

Win or lose, Collard was encouraged with the effort put in by all players, saying, “I think that a positive aspect of the trip is the way we fought in all of our matches. Even though we faced stronger opponents, at least in terms of rankings, we never got down and we all fought to put some points on the board.”

Swarthmore hopes to parlay this effort into victories in Centennial Conference play, which begins with today’s match at Ursinus College. The team’s goal is to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. To do so, they will have to beat an opponent very similar to the ones they faced in California. On March 29th, the team will travel to Baltimore to take on defending conference champion and 5th ranked Johns Hopkins University in a match that the team hopes will be a preview of the conference championship match in May.

While Swarthmore may not have the same credentials as the Blue Jays on paper, the match will be far from a unique challenge for the battle-tested Garnet. Said Collard, “We realize that we are right there with all of these top-ranked teams.” As a result, “we realize that it will be difficult [to win the conference] with 5th ranked Johns Hopkins, but we believe that it is within our reach. Once in the conference playoffs, we feel confident that we could go to Baltimore and dethrone last year’s champs.”

As the Garnet head into conference play, the team will attempt to prove that their early season losses were merely learning experiences, blemishes in an otherwise strong season. By choosing not to be a frontrunner by scheduling light competition and instead choosing to test its abilities against the nation’s best, Swarthmore is as well prepared as they can possibly be. As Park put it, “After playing against some of the top talent in the nation, we know that we can beat any team in our conference if we put our mind to it.”

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