The Jumbos kicked off the season in a rapid fashion on their annual sun-bathed swing through California, winning four out of six matches in a span of seven days. For the young team — six of its members are first-years — the trip was an extremely beneficial experience.
“It’s a great way for the team to get to know each other and to have a full week of competition,” senior tri-captain Kevin Kelly said. “It’s definitely a lot, considering this is the start of our season. If you look at [the remainder of] our schedule, we [only] play one or two matches a week.”
The accelerated schedule and California heat always pose unique challenges, including fatigue and injury, but after being hampered by these factors in previous years, the Jumbos took new measures to combat those risks, according to senior tri-captain Ben Battle.
“We had an earlier fitness test requirement, about a month before spring break,” Battle said. “When official practice started [three weeks before the trip] … we wanted everybody to already be in their groove, so they could take the three weeks to train and build up. That certainly worked — our fitness was great, and we handled the schedule really well.”
On March 18, the then-No. 13 Tufts downed host Point Loma Nazarene University, 6-3. The team dropped the top three singles matches, but Kelly (6-1, 6-1), along with first-years Zach Shaff (6-4, 6-3) and Nathan Niemiec (6-4, 5-7, 10-6), rebounded with wins to even the scoreline. Tufts then swept the doubles matches, as Shaff and Battle provided the clinching victory.
Tufts was right back on the courts the next day, rolling to a 6-0 win over the College of the Desert in Palm Desert, Calif. First-years Jason Scanlon and Ethan Bershtein dominated their singles matches, winning 6-0, 6-0 and 6-1, 6-1, respectively, while juniors Zain Ali and Danny Coran swept their doubles match, 8-0.
The Jumbos extended their season-opening win streak to three on March 20, dropping just a single set in a 9-0 triumph over No. 24 University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in Claremont, Calif. Shaff improved to 4-0 on the season with wins in both his singles (6-3, 6-1) and doubles (8-4, with Battle) matches, while sophomore Ethan Chen rebounded from losing the opening set of his singles match to defeat the Warhawks’ Zach Wood, 10-8, in a tight third-set tiebreak.
The following day, Tufts traveled to Pomona, Calif. where it lost 9-0 at the hands of No. 5 University of Chicago. The Jumbos were only able to win two sets against a talented Maroons squad, as Ali (3-6, 6-2, 4-6) and Shaff (2-6, 6-4, 0-6) took opponents to three sets in their respective singles matches. First-years Ninan Kumar and Erik Kerrigan and sophomore Charlie Pei each recorded two victories for the University of Chicago.
Playing its fifth match in as many days, Tufts rebounded with a hard-fought 6-3 victory over a familiar opponent: Colby College. Underscoring how evenly-matched the two teams were, the singles matches of Ali, Chen and junior Rohan Gupte all lasted a full three sets. While only Chen was victorious, the Jumbos clinched the victory by winning three additional singles matches and two doubles matches.
“Traditionally, Colby has been competitive,” Kelly said. “This year’s team is [even] stronger than in years past.”
Barring a matchup in May’s NESCAC Championships, the Jumbos won’t face the Mules again this season, but the victory should provide a strong launching point for the young team as it dives into NESCAC play.
“It was great to see [our first-years] rise to the occasion,” Battle said. “If you look at their performances against Point Loma compared to how [they] performed against Colby, it’s [encouraging] to see their improvement.”
For the second time in three years, Tufts wrapped up its whirlwind week by falling to No. 9 Pomona-Pitzer in a narrow 5-4 decision. Ali, Shaff and Kelly provided singles victories to split the singles matches 3-3 with Pomona, the latter two in three sets. While the Shaff-Battle partnership fought to a 9-7 win, the team lost the doubles matchup, as Ali and first-year Ben Biswas fell 8-6, to Pomona-Pitzer’s duo of first-year Quinn Hirsohn and junior Marko Mandic, while Gupte and junior Griffin Brockman lost 8-2 to juniors Spencer Simonides and Anthony Bello.
“[Our matchups with Pomona] are always very tight,” Battle said. “Losing a match like that is a good learning experience because we’re going to play NESCAC teams [on] that level [who] we need to beat 5-4.”
The loss dropped Tufts to 4-2 on the young season, as the team returns home after a long, yet rewarding week in the California sunshine. The No. 14 Jumbos will look to build on their 1-0 conference record when they host No. 15 Amherst College on April 1.