Encouraging season for Tufts falls just short

Sophomore Nathan Niemiec tosses a serve in Tufts' 8–1 loss to Bowdoin on April 28. Ben Kim /The Tufts Daily

The Tufts men’s tennis team stormed out of the gates in its 2018 season, but several runs of misfortune, as well as a failure to capitalize on key opportunities, ended its campaign prematurely. Tufts split its final two matches against No. 3 Bowdoin (an 8–1 loss) and Colby (a 7–2 victory), registering a 10–6 overall record and a 3–5 conference mark to end the season ranked 18th in Div. III.

On April 29, the Jumbos hosted the Colby Mules (8–7) indoors at the Gantcher Center on Senior Day. In its last match of the season, Tufts swept through the doubles competition to grab a 3–0 lead. The duo of rising juniors Nathan Niemiec and Zach Shaff, who won in second doubles, highlighted the team’s success.

“We finally got our groove on going into our third match [playing together],” Niemiec said. “The support of the crowd on Senior Day really helped and made us want to put on a great show.”

Graduating senior co-captain Ben Battle emphasized how the team’s energy propelled it to an early lead and, eventually, a 7–2 victory.

“It was Senior Day and everyone was really excited,” Battle said. “We wanted it. We went out there and took it from [Colby] from the first ball.”

Tufts also won four of the six singles showdowns, as the team’s other two graduating senior co-captains left everything on the court in their final matches. Justin Brogan bested Colby rising junior Jonathan Hallal (6–0, 6–3) in sixth singles, while Danny Coran wrested the first set before narrowly falling in fourth singles (5–7, 6–4, 6–4) to senior Shaw Speer.

The previous day, Tufts lost to then-No. 3 Bowdoin, 8–1, at the Voute Tennis Courts. The Polar Bears posted an impressive 17–1 regular season record this year. In No. 1 doubles, Tufts team of rising sophomores Boris Sorkin and Carl-Herman Grant pulled off a huge upset to break past graduating senior co-captain Luke Tercek and rising senior Grant Urken 9–7, a pairing that started the season ranked No. 2 in the Northeast. Sorkin continued his run of fine form in first singles, but Urken ultimately got his revenge in two tight sets (6–4, 7–5).

The Jumbos closed the season with an undefeated record (8–0) against teams currently ranked outside the top 25 in the country. With the bulk of last year’s starting lineup returning from the 2016–17 season, Tufts showed promise early on with a four match win-streak over spring break that included a 5–4 victory over then-No. 23 Sewanee.

The team took a heavy loss despite winning its match against Whittier on March 20, as Battle was forced to retire from second singles with a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). The fifth-year senior, a key starter prior to injury, also tore his ACL in his junior season.

The Jumbos impressed in their 6–3 loss to the then-No. 3 Middlebury Panthers on April 8, in which two of their four singles losses went to three sets. However, the team struggled against teams in the top 25 as the season progressed.

“We really thought we were stronger at every spot on the team, [and] at the start we were,” coach Karl Gregor said. “But it didn’t materialize.”

The Jumbos’ hopes for postseason success unraveled after a disappointing 7–2 loss against the then-No. 24 Bates Bobcats, which caused them to miss the NESCAC Tournament for the second consecutive year. Tufts also fell to the perennial powers at the top of the NESCAC, including Middlebury, Bowdoin and Williams.

“Our goal was to beat an Amherst, Williams, Bowdoin or Middlebury,” Gregor said. “That’s the echelon we want to get to. They’re just a little more prepared and [have] a little more confidence.”

Although the season ended on a sour note, Tufts was able to go 3–1 in its last four matches — including a 6–3 victory over then-No. 27 Skidmore — after shifting to a younger lineup.

“The young guys stepped up,” Gregor said. “It’s encouraging to see they can still get through.”

In particular, two rising sophomores issued statement performances near the end of the season. Sorkin ascended to the No. 1 singles position for the Jumbos and became ranked No. 12 in the Northeast. His strong performances placed him on the cusp of qualifying for the NCAA Championships. Meanwhile, Grant made his way up the lineup to second singles by the season’s end.

Still, the Jumbos will have a difficult time without the leadership of Battle, Coran and Brogan next year.

“[They’re] a real strong core of leaders that we’ll have a hard time filling,” Gregor said. “They do a ton of work in the offseason. [Their] very strong leadership this year kept us together over the difficulties we had this season.”