WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- Nothing much has changed from a year ago when Linfield, Whitman and Pacific Lutheran waged a three-way dogfight for the Northwest Conference men's tennis title.
"Who wins it this season could depend on which team stays healthy and peaks at the end," Whitman coach Jeff Northam says.
Last spring it was Pacific Lutheran that emerged victorious, edging Linfield 4-3 in the finals after the Wildcats had slipped past Whitman by the same narrow margin in the semifinals.
Since then, Linfield lost Ryan Cruz, their No. 2 player, to graduation but have added a few talented players to compensate. Pacific Lutheran graduated Tyler Imig, its No. 1 singles player, but also returns plenty of talent.
"In my mind, Linfield has to be the pre-season favorite," Northam says. "They have four guys who could probably play No. 1 for them."
At the same time, Northam isn't looking past Pacific Lutheran, a perennial champion in past years, nor is he discounting his own squad's chance of regaining the conference title it won two seasons ago. The only player missing from last year's Missionary roster is Nick Dupuis, who decided to forego his senior year at Whitman to enroll in a cooperative 3-2 engineering program at New York's Columbia University. Dupuis played No. 4 singles last spring and was a key component in the doubles line-up.
"Losing Nick will hurt, especially in doubles, but we have everyone else back, and we've added some new players who give us more depth than we've ever had," Northam says. "Rick Smith, who played No. 6 singles for us two years ago, is also back after missing his junior season while on foreign study."
Senior Tim Mullin, last year's NWC Player of the Year, returns to lead the Missionaries and cap a collegiate career that has already produced more than 110 victories. "Tim is on track to break the all-time record for victories at Whitman," Northam says. "He's been a very talented and consistent player for us. He loves to play and compete, and he can't wait to get started."
Based on his play last spring and in a few regional tournaments last fall, Mullin is ranked No. 24 nationally in NCAA Div. III. "That is the highest a Whitman player has been ranked to start the season in at least a dozen years," Northam says.
Trevor Gamble, a 6-foot-7 junior with an intimidating power game, returns to play No. 2 singles for the Missionaries. Gamble, who missed a year or two with chronic ankle and wrist pain, stayed relatively healthy for much of last season. "When Trevor is healthy and moving well, he's a definite force on the court," Northam says. "He hasn't complained of any undue pain or soreness this year, which is a good sign, and he hasn't missed any practices."
Senior Owen Bargreen and sophomore Sam Spiegel start the season in the No. 3 and 4 singles spots. "Owen and Sam were solid for us last season, and we expect more of the same this spring," Northam says.
Brad Changstrom, a freshman from Loveland, Colo., has slipped into the No. 5 spot in early challenge matches, while Smith is back in the No. 6 slot as his senior season begins. "Brad is a solid player who works hard and is very coachable. He's a good addition to our top six. It's also great to have Rick back. He's a little rusty but still hitting the ball fairly smoothly. Had Rick been on board last season, we would have won some matches we lost."
Challenge matches will continue as the season progresses, and a handful of players have realistic chances of busting into the top six, Northam says. Evan Chiang, a junior, has elevated his play significantly from a year ago. Others with match experience from past seasons are junior Graham Sumioka and sophomores Ye-San Lin and Gaurav Garg. Other players to watch include Tyler Haas, a freshman from Bellevue (Wash.) High School who has been slowed by a muscle pull, and Shiv Singh, a native of Calcutta, India, and a junior transfer from Indiana's Hanover College.
Northam has yet to make any hard and fast decisions on his doubles line-up. A good part of the season will be used to see which combinations work best. Mullin and Gamble make a formidable twosome, and Bargreen and Spiegel were a duo in numerous matches last spring. "Some of the guys not in the top six at this point in singles have a lot of doubles experience," Northam says. "We could go with Tim and Trevor as our top doubles team, but having the strongest No. 1 doubles team is not always the most important thing. What's more important is making all three doubles teams as strong as they can possibly be."
The Missionaries open their season at home this Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 8-10, with matches against some of their toughest teams they will face all season. Lewis-Clark State, a nationally-ranked NAIA tennis powerhouse, visits the Bratton Tennis Center on Friday afternoon, followed by Whitman's two NWC rivals, Pacific Lutheran and Linfield, on Saturday and Sunday.
Whitman jumps from the frying pan into the fire on the weekend of Feb. 16-17 when it hosts the second-annual NCAA DIII National Indoor Championship Tournament. Five of the nation's top-ranked DIII teams will join the Missionaries to battle for a title won last February by the University of California-Santa Cruz. Whitman plays Redlands University in this year's first round.
Later in the season Whitman will skip its annual Spring Break to California to play four matches in Hawaii. This year's NWC Championships are set for April 19-20 in Yakima, Wash.