Monday, December 26, 2011

2012 Pre-Season Rankings

1. Amherst - They may not go undefeated in the regular season but it doesn't matter. They are the best team and have shown they will raise their game in May. The Jeffs will win the national title if they play like they have the past three seasons. This team is loaded top to bottom and has no weaknesses. Anything can happen on any given day, but I just don't see them losing.

2. CMS - The only team who can seriously threaten Amherst in my opinion. They have a reputation for choking in May, but their top 4 is as good as its ever been this year. The Stags are hungry to finally break through and get to the national title match, but they have to be careful not to wear themselves out during the regular season, which I think may play a part in their postseason collapses.

3. Emory - You know what you're going to get from their top 2, but its their freshmen that will determine how good this team is. With the best 2 players in the country its hard to rank them at 3, but they aren't as deep as the top 2. They still have the intimidation factor going in their favor and I'd be surprised if they don't make the Final 4. They would have to get lucky to win it all.

4. Williams - 4 through 10 in these rankings I consider even, but I'm giving the edge to the Ephs for now due to their great postseason and fall season. They have some great players at the top and are deep and last year's young team managed to finish 4th in NCAAs. They, and their coach, are a year older and will use that experience to hopefully find their way back to the Final 4.

5. Wash U - On paper, they probably aren't the 5th best team in the country, but I really like the Bears intangibles. They are a fairly inexperienced team, but no matter what team they put on the court, they always manage a respectable performance. Beating Emory and their 5th straight Final 4 aren't out of reach, but just like last year, I don't think they have enough talent to win it all.

6. Middlebury - Another very young team, and I have the feeling most of the country isn't all that familiar with their roster. I'll be interested to see what kind of impact Hansen's coaching will have on their team because they certainly have a lot of talent. The Peters loss is tough to weigh at the moment. One sure thing is that the ultra-competitive NESCAC will test them and they will come to play in May.

7. UC Santa Cruz - A massive match to begin their season against Trinity (TX), and it will define this year's team. Can they win without Hansen is the question on everyone's mind. Their coaching staff remains excellent and they have a great team despite losing Pybas. I don't see them as a serious threat to CMS this season, but I'd also be very surprised if they dropped out of the top 8 in the country.

8. Kenyon - They overachieved in '11 and underachieved in '10, so if they revert to the mean this is about where they are in '12. They lose their top player, but some good recruits should keep them as a dominant force and a top 10 team. I can see them being as high as 4th, but historically they haven't been able to get past the Final 8 and beat the top teams. A well-rounded team that's still young.

9. Johns Hopkins - They have so much talent, no amount of choking will cause them to lose to a team outside the top 10. Or so we think. They have yet to get past the Sweet 16 and their postseason collapses have turned into a running joke. I think they will have a strong regular season and are a threat against anyone in the country, but no one cares about anything but NCAAs when it comes to JHU.

10. Pomona-Pitzer - Probably overachieved in '11, but this is still a good team who will be a tough out this season. Unfortunately they didn't win their most important matches of the season, but I can see them giving Cruz a run this year. As always they play a loaded schedule that will give them plenty of opportunities against the big boys, but they need to save something for May.

11. NC Wesleyan - As always, kind of a wildcard in all of this. They predicted national titles for themselves, but they haven't moved into the top echelon of teams yet. They have definitely established the program as a perennial top 15 team, but that signature win still eludes them. This season is another opportunity as I believe this strength of this team is overlooked due to their poor doubles in the past.

12. Trinity (TX) - Don't have quite the firepower they did last year, but still a respectable team with top players and depth. It would take a big time effort to get back to the Final 8 for the 3rd year in a row, but if anyone has the heart to do it its these guys. A good mix of youth and experience and if they field a strong doubles lineup like they usually do, anything can happen with the 9-pt system.

13. DePauw - They are switching conferences and I believe they are entering this season with high expectations after a somewhat disappointing last couple seasons. Last year they were better then their ranking while going through a coaching change and I expect them to pick up their level and challenge Kenyon for the conference title. This is a sleeper who could cause an upset if they get to NCAAs.

14. Chicago - A new coach, who is a female I might add, but still the same talent and high expectations. They had their best season in program history last year but still couldn't break through to the Final 8. I don't think they are quite as strong as last year, but they still remain a contender to make NCAAs and could give Wash U and Emory a hard time. Still up in the air on this team, hard to predict what they'll do.

15. Redlands - Probably don't deserve to be 15, but it seems like they always end up around here and they had a deep recruiting class after losing some key players. I see them as a distant 4th best team in California who will once again be on the brink for NCAAs. The difference between the past 2 seasons and all the other ones is they haven't been able to pull out their most important matches recently.

The Rest: Bowdoin, Carnegie Mellon, Case Western, Cal Lutheran, Mary Washington, Trinity (CT), MIT, Rhodes, Bates, Whitewater, Whitman, Gustavus, Tufts, Brandeis, Tyler, Skidmore, Vassar, Washington & Lee

Top 10 Stories of 2012

10. Can Williams do it again? The Ephs pulled off one of the biggest upsets in Final 8 history with their win against CMS, on the road, in last year's quarterfinal. Williams returns their whole team for this year and the good news for them is they are out of the spotlight in the NESCAC this year. All eyes are on Amherst and Midd and Williams will go about their business and quietly be a top 8 team for the whole season. At the end of last year, I was worried about them beating Hopkins to qualify for the Final 8 - but they did a lot more than that. I really like their chances to get back to the quarterfinals, but going further will be the real test.

9. Emory hasn't won a title since 2006 - 2nd is great, however anything but a national title is not acceptable for the Eagles. Emory has to feel like they've been punched in the stomach 2 years in a row by the same team, although the losses were very different. The Eagles got flat out crushed in singles last year and I don't see any signs that would make me think they can win it all in 2012. Yes, they have the two best players in the country, but if Goodwin can't win his singles matches in NCAAs then Emory doesn't have a chance to beat the Jeffs. The Eagles will almost definitely be a top 5 team and most likely a top 3 team this year, but if they aren't winning national titles they aren't happy.

8. Watch out for Case Western - A team in the rise who quietly crept into the top 20 in 2011 and stayed there for a decent portion of the season. They have solidified themselves as a solid #5 in the UAA and I can even see them finishing 3rd in the conference in 2012. I think that this is a solid top 20 team in 2012 who could flirt with the top 15 and an NCAA berth. They are bringing in one of the best recruits in school history and Coach Wojtkowski has done wonders with this program over the past couple seasons. I expect Case to give a lot of top 15 teams a very hard time and I can see this as the true breakthrough year for this program where they establish themselves on the national scene.

7. CMS and Hopkins performance in NCAAs - At this point, both teams have a reputation for choking during May. You can't even argue with that fact. That being said, I believe both of these teams will field the best teams they've ever had during the 2012 season. Hopkins has the top recruiting class in Division 3 and how their freshmen respond will go a long way in determining their fate this year. CMS has 4 of 6 starters back from last year's team that should have finished #3 in the country, plus the best recruit entering D3 this year. I expect to see both of these teams in the quarterfinals this year and I think on paper, Hopkins is close to a top 5 team and CMS is the clear #2 in the country.

6. 5 consecutive Final 4s for Wash U - The Bears are usually overshadowed by other more flashy teams, but more so than anyone else, they go about their business and collect wins. More so than other years, they will have a young team in 2012 with no seniors in the starting singles lineup. The Bears currently hold the longest streak of Final 4s in D3 with 4 in a row, and I think they have a good chance to make it 5 in a row if the NCAA draw goes their way. They finished #3 in the country last year, but anyone who thinks they were actually the 3rd best team is foolish. I think a lot depends on what happens with Wash U's doubles this year, as beating Emory and taking back the UAA title are certainly attainable goals.

5. Pomona-Pitzer the new #2 in SCIAC? P-P really had a breakthrough year last year, but their year was very similar to CLU's 2010, and we saw what happened to the Kingsmen last year. P-P showed separation between Redlands and CLU, but there is also a large gap between the Hens and CMS. I like P-P to be in the bottom half of the top 10 again this year, as they return most of their starting lineup from last year and they have a solid recruiting class. What they do in 2012 will be one of the most interesting stories for me personally, as I'm anxious to see if they can close the gap with the top dogs in California. They play a tough schedule as always, and you wonder if they are tired by the end of the year because they clearly didn't have their best stuff in the last month of the season.

4. DePauw's conference switch - For those unaware, DePauw switched conferences from the SCAC, where they used to be grouped with Trinity (TX) and Rhodes, to the NCAC, where they will now compete against Kenyon and Denison. This is great news for the Tigers of Trinity and bad news for Kenyon, as the Lords will now have to constantly watch their back when it comes to NCAAs because they don't necessarily have an auto bid to NCAAs. I really like this year's DePauw team and I expect them to be somewhere between 11 and 13 in the country. I don't think their ranking of 16 did last year's team justice and I expect the Tigers to make a lot of noise in their new conference this season.

3. Indoors returns to Gustavus - After a one year hiatus in which National Indoors moved to Mary Washington, the Gusties announced that Indoors will be returning to its proper home. I would think last year's switch was a combination of Gustavus being overmatched and financial issues. Either way, its great to see GAC take back this great event and I hope that they can give some tough matches to the Indoors field which is always elite. The Gusties have incredible fan support and the atmosphere during their matches is as good as any in D3 tennis. I was delighted to see this news a couple months ago, as I think Indoors is the next best thing to NCAAs despite the outstanding Stag-Hen field this year.

2. Hansen to Middlebury - This was just a shocker and I have mixed feelings about it. I have my own theories as to why Bob Hansen left his beloved Cruz, but I think that he saw a dead end in California and a new beginning in Vermont. I don't expect Midd to be a top 5 team this year because they still don't have a lot of experience, but I'm anxious to see where they will be in 3-5 years as Hansen now has a very attractive school to market. Obviously it's going to be a different environment from Cruz and we will see how the best coach in D3 history adjusts. I think that there will be unnecessary pressure on Midd this year and they won't perform up to everyone's expectations. I see them being 3rd in NESCAC and somewhere between 5 and 9 in the country this year.

1. Can anyone touch Amherst? The Jeffs simply go through the motions during the regular season and everyone knows that now. They really don't care about wins and losses in March and April, but rather focus on getting better and being healthy in May. The only weakness they showed during NCAAs last year was the first 15 minutes of doubles against Trinity. Other than that, they were completely untouchable. Nothing suggests this won't happen again and for 5 more years. I think that we have a dynasty in the making in Amherst, MA and no one can stop it. If this team feels like winning nationals, they are going to do just that. In other news, the Jeffs have signed 2 5-stars who will start in Fall 2012. I'm not joking when I say I think we could see 5-6 national titles in a row from Amherst, but how long does Garner hang around?