Issue   |   Fri, 05/23/2014 - 12:15
Photo courtesy of Andrew Scheiner '15

What an amazing year it was for the Amherst men’s tennis team, losing just three times in nearly 40 matches and garnering a NESCAC and NCAA title along the way. It’s hard to think the season could have gone any better.

The Jeffs got off to a fast start this year with senior co-captain Joey Fritz and sophomore Ben Fife teaming up to win the ITA Regional Championships in the fall. Unseeded, the duo, as Aaron Revzin ’16 put it, “shocked the nation” by taking down pairs from Middlebury, Tufts and Williams to advance to the finals. In the championship match, they topped Palmer Campbell and Brantner Jones of Midd. 6-7, 6-2, 10-7 to bring home the doubles’ crown.

The short fall season also featured three dual-match victories over MIT, Johns Hopkins and Carnegie Mellon. Fritz posted an impressive 3-0 record in the top singles spot, and his position was the only part of the lineup that stayed unchanged through the spring.

When asked for what was the biggest challenge for the team was this season, head coach Chris Garner responded, “Trying to keep up with Captain Fritz.”

After a long offseason of hard work, the Jeffs were set for their annual spring break trip to sunny California, where they would play 17 matches over the course of six days. With multiple contests on a given day, it was an excellent opportunity for all 21 members of the team to experience some playing time.

“It was a great week. The guys had a blast. The time they share with one another during the week is one of the highlights each season,” Garner said.

Amherst had only two losses out west, falling 5-4 to Concordia and 6-3 to Claremont-Mudd Scripps. In the biggest match of the trip, against CMS, only the top doubles team of Fritz and Justin Reindel ’14 was able to defeat their Stag opponents, while Chris Dale ’14 and Reindel were the lone players to record wins in singles.

Returning home on a six-match win streak, the Jeffs continued to roll, going undefeated in the NESCAC and accumulating eight 9-0 sweeps before their final two matches of the regular season against conference powerhouses Williams and Middlebury.

Despite going down 1-2 after doubles, Amherst edged the Ephs 5-4 by winning four out of the six singles matches. Dale’s three-set victory in the second singles spot clinched the win and earned him NESCAC Player of the Week Honors.

Against Middlebury in the team’s regular season finale, the Jeffs once again went down 1-2 after doubles — a theme that would return later on in the postseason. The doubles advantage proved to be the difference maker this time around, as the teams split the singles’ competition, giving Middlebury both the match and the top-seed in the conference.

As the second seed, Amherst earned a first round bye in the NESCAC tournament and trumped both Williams and Middlebury 5-1 in the semis and finals, respectively, demonstrating that the team was indeed the best in conference this season. Their NESCAC title was the sixth in program history and third in the past four years.

With an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, the Jeffs entered the 64-team field as the third in the country. After another first round bye, Amherst hosted the second and third rounds of play, defeating Stevens and Bowdoin handily.

Once the Jeffs all finished their final exams and papers (because, after all, they are student-athletes), the team traveled to CMS in California for the remainder of the tournament.

In the quarterfinals, Amherst squared off against sixth-ranked Emory, whom they defeated 5-1 to advance the national semifinals for the second consecutive season.

Against eighth-ranked Trinity (TX), the Jeffs had to overcome a 3-0 doubles deficit if they wanted to a shot at the national title the next day.

Trinity got on the board early with an 8-5 win over Fritz and Reindel in the top doubles spot. Both the second and third doubles teams battled to 8-8 ties in their pro-sets, pushing them to tiebreaks. However, neither Andrew Yaraghi ’16 and Revzin nor Michael Solimano ’16 and Dale could edge their Trinity opponents.

“We were down 3-0, but our team, we always fight really hard, and I just thought if I fight and do my part, then maybe our team will have a chance,” Fritz said.

The senior co-captain did just that, and his match was the first to finish, as he topped Paxton Deuel 7-5, 6-4 in what would be the only straight-set victory on the day.

After losing the first set, Reindel bounced back to win his match 2-6, 6-2, 6-0 in the sixth singles spot, cutting the lead to 3-2. Solimano evened the score at three apiece with a win in the third singles spot. After splitting the first two sets, 2-6, 6-4, the sophomore was down 5-2 in the third before he went on to win seven straight games and take the set 7-5 as well as the match.

When asked to comment on Solimano’s improvement, as the sophomore broke into the singles lineup for just the first time in March this past year, Garner remarked, “It might be a couple of different reasons. Rooming with Aaron Revzin, having to play Brenton Arnaboldi ’14 in a number of practice matches, or maybe he just realized he can play at a higher level and became a more confident tennis player.”

Yaraghi had another come-from-behind win, topping Jordan Mayer in the fifth spot, 5-7, 6-3, 6-3 to give Amherst a fragile 4-3 lead.

In the second singles spot, Dale’s match was as close as it gets. With the score at 7-6, 5-7, and tied a five games each in the third set, play was stopped as Anton Zykov ’17 had clinched the fifth and final win for the Jeffs with a 7-6, 6-3 victory in the fourth spot.

“There are a lot of guys who come through the program and care about being on the team,” Garner said. “I think they showed a lot of pride by believing in themselves, getting out there, competing and seeing what would happen. Obviously a lot happened.”

The improbable comeback propelled Amherst to the championship match — pitting them against the top-ranked CMS team, who had ousted the Jeffs from contention last year in the NCAA semifinals and topped them earlier this season.

Eager to avenge these losses and hungry for a second national title, the team came out firing on all cylinders but found themselves down 1-2 after the doubles’ portion. Dale and Solimano earned the lone win, defeating their Stag opponents 8-6.

“Without Chris and Michael’s effort at three doubles, we wouldn’t have had a chance. That was a huge win,” Garner said.

Solimano’s success continued into singles, as he defeated Nik Marino 6-2, 7-6, but Dale lost a closely contested match 7-6, 6-2, so CMS still held the slight advantage.

“A few things didn’t go my way today, so I had a tough day on the singles court, but it was great to see everyone else step up around me. I couldn’t be happier with this team,” Dale said.

Yaraghi and Reindel topped their opponents in straight sets, giving Amherst its first lead of the day. In need of just one more win, the team could feel the championship at its fingertips. In a clash between the top two singles players in the country, Fritz finished off Warren Wood 6-2, 3-6, 6-2, prompting his teammates to flood the courts and celebrate their national championship win.

“Going into the third set, honestly I was really tired, but I just thought this is your last match, you have to figure it out. I got a second win going into it and just fought every point as hard as I could,” Fritz said.

The class of 2014’s tennis careers have come full circle, winning national titles both their first and final years at Amherst. Both Dale and Fritz were integral parts to the team’s success back when the Jeffs upset then top-ranked Emory for the title in 2011, as Dale played No. 3 doubles with Mark Kahan ’13 and Fritz was the No. 4 singles players. Over their four years as Jeffs, the senior class has a remarkable 133-19 record.

Garner applauded the graduating class, especially Fritz, Dale and Reindel, “They’re the reason why we even had a chance this year … because of their leadership, their passion and their commitment for not only one another but for tennis and for the rest of the guys on the team.”

“If you’re in a pinch, these are the guys you want on your side. Great competitors, great teammates and great friends,” he continued.

Though they will be losing a trio of stars, the team’s deep squad has had to overcome a number of injuries this year, including Dale’s sprained ankle, and is confident that they will be able to come together once again to work on filling the void. With the return of sophomore sensations, Solimano and Yaraghi, along with first-year stand-out Zykov, the team hopes to defend both its conference and national title next year.