With its season hanging in the balance over the past two weekends, the men’s tennis team traveled into hostile territory and reeled off three of the most consequential wins in program history. With a top-two NESCAC seed and thus a first round tournament bye in their sights, the Cardinals notched a season-defining victory over nationally top-ranked Middlebury, then followed it up with decisive victories over No. 18 Bates and No. 7 Bowdoin. The Bowdoin match clinched the No. 5 Wesleyan’s first ever number one seed in the NESCAC tournament, which will be held at Williams today (May 5), tomorrow, and Sunday.
“Winning the regular season and going into NESCACs as the number one seed is definitely exciting and a great confidence boost,” said Steven Chen ’18. “Anything can happen in the postseason since all the teams are so good, so it’s important for us to stay focused and take one match at a time.”
The team’s regular-season-concluding gauntlet against four nationally-ranked teams did not begin auspiciously. Their 5-4 defeat at the hands of Amherst snapped the Red and Black’s winning streak at 10 and temporarily relegated them to a season-low fourth in the NESCAC standings, marking the team’s biggest setback of the season. Captain Cam Daniels ’18 and Princeton Carter ’20, who had been playing outstanding tennis leading up to the match, each dropped three-set heartbreakers that could have flipped the match’s final result.
Instead of jockeying for the first seed, the team found itself facing an incredibly tough slate of three matches which, if they did not emerge with a winning record, had an outside shot at jeopardizing their playoff berth entirely. But the team quickly put those doubts to rest, sneaking out a win the following day against perhaps the nation’s best team.
The two and three doubles spots, which have arguably been the bedrock of Wesleyan’s success this season, put the Cardinals up early. Chen and Daniels, particularly, looked untouchable on serve while pulling away for an 8-3 win. With Wesleyan needing just three out of six singles slots to secure the upset, Daniels and Tiago Eusebio ’18 pushed the match to the precipice with fairly quick victories. After captain Mike Liu ’17’s loss, the Cardinals needed to take just one out of the remaining three courts, all of which had split sets. Although Chen and Joachim Samson ’19 uncharacteristically suffered tight losses, Carter rose to the occasion and pulled out the paramount triumph of his collegiate career.
With momentum on their side, the Cardinals rolled into Maine the following weekend with confidence to spare. This swagger was on display in Lewiston, where the Bobcats failed to take a set from the Cardinals in singles. A surprising, but ultimately inconsequential loss at third doubles from Chen and Daniels was the only blemish on a 8-1 trouncing.
Despite the long-building anticipation, Sunday’s match against Bowdoin was anything but dramatic. The Cardinals took two of three in doubles, and then claimed easy victories by Chen, Samson, and Daniels to clinch the match early on. The team was so caught off guard by the speed of their victory that there was essentially no celebration.
“We just stood around and were like, ‘Oh shit, we just won’,” said Cam Hicks ’17. “It was kind of surreal.”
The victory, coupled by an Amherst loss in the same afternoon, clinched the top NESCAC seed for the Cardinals. Wesleyan faces the winner of Bowdoin (fourth seed) vs. Bates (fifth). Middlebury (second), the two-time defending conference champ, earned the tournament’s other bye, and will take on the winner of Amherst (third) vs. Williams (sixth). Thus, Wesleyan may need to beat Bowdoin and Middlebury, who were national champion and runner-up last season, to claim the program’s first-ever conference title.
“We came out on the wrong side of the Amherst match but seized the opportunities ahead at Middlebury, Bowdoin, and Bates to end the regular season on a high note,” Hicks said. “The Middlebury match helped cement what we’ve believed all along, that we’re the best team in the country. So, taking out the defending national champions in Bowdoin was a good next step towards the title.”
While a NESCAC and then national title represent the team’s primary goals, Chen also has individual aspirations. He downplayed the significance of a potential personal run at nationals, but a couple extra sets of eyes will certainly be on the junior every time he steps on the court.
“Honestly, I haven’t given too much thought to individuals since both NESCACs and team NCAAs are before the singles tournament,” said Chen. “[Head coach Mike] Fried tells me I’m playing well, but I think he’s just being nice. Did you know that I first started playing tennis in Tennessee? Maybe playing in my home state will give me that extra boost of energy I need. I’m just kidding, but I’m gonna try my best to stay calm, play my game, and take one match at a time. That’s really all you can do, and we’ll see what happens.”