Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Stag-Hen Invitational Discussion

Alex Lane, CMS

After a year hiatus, the Stag-Hen Invitational is back for a 4th year. The field is always strong for this tournament and this year is no exception. 4 of the current Top 10 teams in the country will be competing along with 2 others also in the top 20. For those of you unfamiliar, CMS and Pomona-Pitzer co-host this event, as their courts are within walking distance of each other. They do a wonderful job with the event and it's a great opportunity for all participants to play in a beautiful location and play teams they normally wouldn't see. Let's take a look at this year's field.

CMS vs. Swarthmore
Kenyon vs. Whitman
Trinity (TX) vs. Pomona-Pitzer
Emory vs. Vassar

There are storylines involving every team competing and it's a lot of potential information to digest. Everyone has their eyes on a potential CMS-Emory final, but they both have a lot of work to do to get there. First, I'll discuss the bottom 2 seeds. Swarthmore is a program that is lost right now. It seems like a long time ago, but they qualified for Indoors as recently as 2007. After that, we haven't heard from them. The Garnet are in danger of dropping down to 4th in their conference this year with F&M and Haverford being solid programs. It's unfortunate to see the sudden downfall of a team that was once top notch, but they just aren't recruiting at a high enough level to keep up. With the academic draw of the school, one would think they should be a contender for the top 20 in the country. This isn't the case though and they are a heavy favorite to finish 8th in the tournament. With a little bit of restructuring and some good recruiting, Swarthmore could be back on the map as a national power, just like Amherst did a few years ago. For now, I see them getting crushed 3 times this weekend. Vassar may have a shot at winning 2 matches, but it's unlikely with the strength of the other 3 teams in the bottom half. I've talked about the Brewers a fair amount, and they are trying to establish themselves as a team that is ranked consistently. This is a good opportunity for them to get exposure against some teams outside of New England, but I think it's pretty clear they are 7th best team in this tournament.

The 3 through 6 teams may be a lot closer in ability than meets the eye. The other 2 matches highlight the first round and I would not be at all surprised if 1 of them ended in an upset. First, the co-host Pomona-Pitzer takes on Trinity (TX) in a match where both teams have something to prove. Trinity did not have a very good California swing last year so they are looking for some redemption and trying to prove that they are a top 5 team. Losing this match would not help that cause. As I've said, Trinity peaks late in the season, but I'm sure the Tigers feel they should finish at least 3rd in this tournament. PP is trying to finally break through and become a top 15 team so they can qualify for NCAAs. I don't think 2 SCIAC teams get Pool C bids this year, so therefore it's either the Hens or Redlands. PP is playing at home and with a lot of confidence right now, and if you look at the rest of their schedule, this is one of their best chances for an upset. PP can't come out nervous because I believe doubles is the strength of both teams. If the Tigers come out firing, they have the potential to break PP's spirit and walk away with an easy win. I expect an emotional, grinding match that results in a Trinity win. Pomona-Pitzer still doesn't have that signature win over the past couple years and because of that, I can't pick them against a team of this caliber. I think this will be the best quarterfinal.

In the 4-5 match, we have surprising Kenyon against Whitman. As far as what each team is trying to prove, see the previous paragraph. So far, I don't know if anyone not from Kenyon would have expected the Lords to be sitting at #7 in the country. They have played great tennis, and have certainly proved me wrong about their preseason ranking of 15. They are the favorite in this match and have been rock solid so far this season, but anything can happen. Similar to PP, Whitman is a team looking for a breakthrough. I often get on WC about how they falter against higher ranked teams. Although these 2 have several ranking spots between them, I think they have similar strengths and I expect a good match. A Whitman win could really throw the rankings into a tailspin since Kenyon stands at #7. Whitman has been looking for their ticket out of the California regional, and this may very well be their only opportunity to do that this season. If they win this match, they probably find themselves in the top 10 in the country and may head home with only their conference matches left to play. It's a big opportunity, but they have to really want it and rise to the occasion. These 2 played in the SH first round several years ago with Kenyon winning and beating CMS in the next round. I don't expect a repeat of that, but I do expect Kenyon to win a fairly comfortable 6-3. If they play the way they played against CMU and Chicago, winning will take care of itself.

The structure of this tournament has the semifinals on Friday afternoon directly after the quarters. As if CMS and Emory needed an advantage. Not only are they the better teams, but they will have much easier quarterfinals than their opponents. I don't foresee CMS having any problem with either Kenyon or Whitman, and I think at worst they come away with a 6-3 win. They may use their depth and rest some of their starters in the morning match. The bottom half semifinal could be a little trickier for Emory. When I say I thought Trinity had the best doubles lineup in the country, I didn't just make it up. They didn't play well at Indoors, but everyone, including Browning and his team, know that the Tigers are dangerous. The Trinity team crushed the Emory team in the fall and Trinity also has the best 2 team in the country. Emory is vulnerable in doubles as Wash U showed in Indoors and even though a Pottish/Egan combo looks great on paper, Trinity may be just as good at 3. The bottom line is the Tigers need a doubles sweep to win. Fitness will be an issue and because of that, I like Emory to win 6-3. Trinity matches up well with the Eagles and can win, but they'd need a massive effort from the bottom of their singles lineup and in doubles.

In the final round, I expect Whitman and Pomona-Pitzer for 5th, Trinity and Kenyon for 3rd and Emory and CMS for the title. In the 5th place match, this is more important for PP than it is for Whitman. PP is competing for a Pool C bid and this is not a match they can afford to lose because it would be a dagger in the heart to their tournament chances. Whitman won a hard fought match last year so PP is looking for some revenge, but it may come down to who is less deflated after losing a winnable 1st round match. I like Pomona on their home courts, but I expect a very close result. The Hens will realize that they need it more and by the 3rd match of the tournament I don't think either team will be nervous or anxious. Again, this would be a nice win for Whitman, but it is absolutely crucial for PP. The 3rd place match is a no brainer on paper. These 2 met in last year's Sweet 16 with Trinity winning 5-2. Trinity has their whole team back and Kenyon lost 4 starters. However, as I've said, Kenyon is playing at a much higher level than anyone expected so I expect them to give the Tigers a very hard time. I think Trinity will have a bit too much, but conditioning could play a role. Kenyon may not spend a ton of energy in a loss to CMS, but Trinity could have a long one with Emory. I like the Tigers to win 5-4 or 6-3, but I've underestimated Kenyon this whole season and I'm aware I may be doing it again.

The probable final and biggest match of the season to this point should be Emory and CMS. It's interesting that all 3 of the top teams in the country come into this year with a chip on their shoulder. Amherst got crushed in 2 consecutive national finals, Emory blew a 3-0 lead in last year's NCAA quarters and CMS blew 7 match points to send them to the national final. All of these teams are hungry to prove something and I think they are all very focused. These 2 have contrasting styles as Emory possesses an amazing top of the lineup and CMS has unmatched depth. I am sure that Alex Lane is a great player, but I can't pick against Pottish at the moment. I don't think CMS has anyone who can compete with Chris Goodwin at #2 and that forces CMS to win 5 of the 7 remaining matches. For the Stags to win, I think they may need a doubles sweep. Colin Egan is a clutch #3 and the Eagles have a hidden gem in Nick Szczurek who may be one of the best 4s in the country. I see Emory potentially taking the top 4 spots. If they can put a point on the board in doubles, I really like Emory's chances in this. That being said, Wash U showed that Emory is quite vulnerable in doubles, and with CMS playing on their home courts, a doubles sweep is very possible. The Stags should have the edge at the bottom of the lineup, but I'm picking Emory 5-4 in this match. I believe Browning has his guys very focused and fit after last year's disappointment, and it's just too tough to deal with the top 2 players in the country. CMS can win this match, but I'm impressed with the top two thirds of Emory's lineup and I think it's enough to get them a win on the road.