Feb 12: NC Wesleyan @ Kenyon - An early season match where both teams have something to prove. There is a 4-team round robin happening in Gambier this weekend, but the two top teams there know this is the most important match. NCW is still looking for a signature win over a top 8 program in an attempt to take them to the next level. Their weak doubles will be tested against disciplined Lords team in a hostile environment. Kenyon is trying to prove that last year was no fluke, and they look for a big win and momentum boost against a team projected to be just on the outskirts of the top 10. If Kenyon loses, they could be doubting themselves heading to Indoors.
Feb 24: Santa Cruz vs. Trinity TX - The second year in a row these 2 will meet in the first round of Indoors, and the second year in a row it makes my list of top matches of the season. I can't hype up the importance of this match enough for Cruz. Trinity is a team the Slugs have absolutely dominated for the past 10 years. Bob Hansen is now gone and people are questioning whether this will be the same team. Both programs are known for getting better as the season progresses, but if you're Cruz and you lose this match, it's just a crushing blow to the program as a whole, it means you're not what you used to be. Trinity has a lot less on the line as the clear underdog, but a win would help a lot as the Tigers had some serious issues with being clutch last season.
Feb 25: Carnegie Mellon @ DePauw - An unusual early season match for 2 Pool C hopefuls on Indoors weekend. While the winner is not guaranteed a spot in the tournament, I'm fairly confident when I say the loser puts themselves in a huge hole when it comes to making the tournament. These 2 have had some interesting matches over the years but it seems to me DePauw gets the better of the Tartans more often than not. CMU is looking to bounce back from a terrible year last year and right the ship after their spectacular 2010 campaign. This is probably DPU's best team in a while and they hope to find their way back into the top 10 in the country, something that has eluded them the past couple years.
Mar 22: Johns Hopkins @ Emory - I'm circling this match for Hopkins because they will be in form and we will see what they're really made of. Prior to their meeting with Emory, the Blue Jays will have matches against NCW and the Stag-Hen Invite under their belt. I don't even remember the last time Emory has lost a D3 match at home, so obviously it will be a tall task for Hopkins to win. JHU came close last year, but with all of their recruits, if they really think they can win a national title, this is the type of match they have to start winning. While the Eagles may have been slightly overconfident heading into last year's match with Hop, I'm sure they wont overlook the Blue Jays this year.
Mar 23: Williams @ CMS - CMS bounced back from their loss in 2010 NCAAs and beat Amherst during the regular season last year. Can they bounce back from the Williams loss in 2011 NCAAs and do the same? This is a tough 2-day stretch for the Stags as the have the Jeffs the following day. I'm sure emotions will be high during this match as both sides will remember the epic quarterfinal from last May. Williams is often rusty early in the season and I think it will be tough for them to pull this one out, but a win on the road early in the season against CMS could mean a lot for potential NCAA seeding and more importantly, the Ephs' confidence.
Mar 24: Amherst @ CMS - The 2 best teams facing off in beautiful Claremont, what could be better? Similar to last season, the Stags will have just finished the Stag-Hen Invite and Amherst will be just starting this season, which we have decided doesn't really mean anything anymore. Amherst won this match 2 years ago and lost fairly comfortably last year, so the result is unpredictable. The thing that separates these 2 from their competition is depth, and the fact that both teams boast 4 players who could be playing #1 on almost any other top 10 team. I think this match will end up coming down to doubles, but whoever wins will have this win in the back of their mind heading when NCAAs roll around.
Apr 14: Bowdoin @ Middlebury - The annual match where the NESCAC pretenders and contenders will be separated. Both teams are fairly young, and the last time the Polar Bears beat Midd was the 2008 NESCAC final. We will see if Midd and their new coach can continue to assert their dominance over the consistent NESCAC #4, and on the contrary, as I said many times last year, we will see if Bowdoin can avoid the typical Bowdoin season. Last year's NCAA Sweet 16 loss to Midd was Bowdoin's program in a nutshell. Good but not quite good enough. As the years pass I'm sure the Polar Bears are anxious to shake this title, especially with a new coach on board. This young and scrappy Bowdoin team is underrated and hoping to make a name for themselves.
Apr 15: Wash U @ Chicago - A rematch of one of the biggest upsets of the 2011 season. The match last year was the first time since their national title season that Wash U had lost to a non-top 10 opponent, and at the same time, it was Chicago's first ever win against a top 10 opponent. Chicago had a mini-breakthrough year last year as they finally made NCAAs under the new system, but the real question is if they can keep it going. The Maroons have a lot of firepower and just like last year, this Bears team seems vulnerable. Both squads will be winding down their seasons and looking ahead to the UAA championships, but this match could have a lot of impact on NCAA seeding just as it did last year.
Apr 22: Pomona-Pitzer @ Redlands - I don't think anyone but Pomona-Pitzer expected them to do what they did last year, with conference rival Redlands included. It seems as though these 2 switched roles last year as Redlands had chances to beat PP and salvage their season, but they were unable to do so. The reason this match makes this list is because the rest of the country is curious as to whether PP being the #2 team in the SCIAC is the new normal or just a one time thing. Redlands is very hungry to get back to NCAAs, and more importantly to be taken seriously once again. PP is hoping to prove that their 2011 season was not a fluke and they look to move toward CMS rather than moving backward and becoming another face in the crowd.
Apr 28: Amherst @ Middlebury - On the West Coast, the thorn in Bob Hansen's side was CMS, at least in recent years. On the East Coast, it's going to be Amherst. The puzzling thing about Hansen's move is if he's doing it for a better opportunity, why would you move into the conference with the clear best team in the country? At this point in the season, Amherst will begin to peak and that spells trouble for an inferior Middlebury team. That being said, if Midd can somehow pull the upset, it could be huge for NCAA seeding and the Panthers confidence as well. This match will feature what are probably the 2 best coaches in the country at the moment and hopefully this will be the first of many great clashes to come with Garner and Hansen in the same conference.