May 27, 2010

Marty Gitlin, Special to

OBERLIN, Ohio - Conrad Olson heard a commotion behind him late Thursday afternoon. And he knew it was something that would make him smile.

The third singles player for Middlebury College was about to serve match point against Amherst (Mass.) foe Moritz Koenig. Olson believed his own team was on the verge of winning the 2010 NCAA Division III men's tennis championships. And he also sensed that the very point he was about to play could be the title-clincher.

He was right. Olson won the point to secure a 6-2, 6-2 personal triumph and 5-1 victory for his Panthers. It marked their second national crown and first since 2004. Middlebury (23-2), which has won 16 consecutive matches, also bumped off North Carolina Wesleyan and Washington St. Louis en route to the championship.

"It's amazing," said Conrad after his Middlebury teammates celebrated the achievement by dousing coach David Schwarz with a water bucket. "On the last point, (Koenig's) ball floated and landed just an inch wide and I was so happy. I didn't expect this blowout in singles."

He got one anyway. Middlebury No. 2 singles player Andrew Lee defeated Mark Kahan, 6-1, 6-3 and teammate Andrew Thomson dominated Wes Waterman, 6-3, 6-0, at No. 4 singles. The other singles matches were stopped when the Panthers clinched the title. The first doubles team of Lee and Thomson had already defeated the Amherst duo of Austin Chafetz and Robby Sorrel, 8-5, while the Middlebury second doubles tandem of Olson and Eliot Jia were beating Koenig and Kahan, 8-3.

The lone Amherst win was at third doubles, where Waterman and Sean Doerfler doubled up Chris Mason and Andrew Peters, 8-4. That might have been the only Lord Jeffs triumph of the day had all the matches continued - Middlebury was winning at fifth and sixth singles and had split sets at first singles when the match was halted.

And though Schwarz was not about to state that his 2010 edition was the finest with which he'd been involved in his 10 years at the school, he did make some other rather bold claims.

"I don't know if I've seen a team with that kind of singles performance ... ever," said Schwarz, still dripping wet from the water bath. "All I ever had to do was roll those balls out there. This was the easiest team I ever had to coach."

The singles players were indeed tremendous. Lee was particularly impressive. While most players who strike the ball with such force on serves and ground strokes are susceptible to double faults and unforced errors, Lee was as consistent as any player gracing a court Thursday afternoon.

"I felt like I was stronger than (Kahan)," explained Lee, who admitted he didn't know how his teammates were doing during his match. "I tried to hit the ball with high and heavy topspin and push him back on the court. I played him earlier in the season and it was a much longer match. He took me to three sets."

Thomson might have had a bit more personal incentive during his match. After all, Waterman had defeated a couple of his teammates earlier this year, so he sought revenge for them. He did it by using a strategy of keeping the ball on the court and waiting for his opponent to eventually miss.

"I played really good defense," Thomson said. "I forced him to take a lot of extra shots and I think it wore on him. I was playing almost all baseline, but I was able to mix in some serve-and-volley."

That "extra shot" philosophy served the Panthers well at all positions. Amherst coach Chris Garner certainly noticed.

"I've been coaching this team for three years and in that time I've learned that Middlebury is exceptional at making you play one extra ball," he said. "They're a very competitive team and they don't beat themselves."

They didn't beat themselves in this tournament. They just beat every opponent that stood in their way.