WALLA WALLA, Wash. - The future looks especially bright for Jeff Northam and the Whitman College men's tennis team. So, too, does the present.
Now in his tenth season as Whitman's coach, Northam has assembled one of his strongest teams in years, thanks in large part to a core group of five talented freshmen. Those first-year players, coupled with returning veterans Sam Spiegel and Brad Changstrom, give the Missionaries seven front-line players ready to battle one another and the rest of the Northwest Conference.
"On any given day, any one of the top seven could beat any one of the others," Northam says. "This is the first time that I've had seven strong players who are so similar in ability. There is no clear demarcation between the top one or two players and everyone else."
The Missionaries open their spring season by hosting NWC rival Whitworth on Saturday, Feb. 14, in the Bratton Tennis Center. The season culminates with the conference championships April 16-17 at the Yakima (Wash.) Tennis Club.
Spiegel, a senior from Vancouver, British Columbia, is back for his fourth season at Whitman. The only senior on the roster this spring, Spiegel played at No. 2 singles last year, compiling an 11-1 record against conference opponents and earning All-NWC First-Team honors. He also was named to the Academic All-District team last spring.
Changstrom, a junior from Loveland, Colo., earned All-NWC Second-Team recognition a year ago, playing primarily at No. 3 singles and posting a 10-4 record against conference foes.
The best of Northam's freshman class are fraternal twins David and Dane Miller (Sumner, Wash.), Steven Ly (Fairview, Ore.), Phalkun Mam (Salem, Ore.) and Robbie Munday (Okanogan Falls, British Columbia).
A sixth player, Nick Clayville, a junior transfer from Spokane, Wash., enrolled at Whitman in January after playing his first two seasons at Spokane Falls Community College. Clayville, who won't compete for Whitman until next fall, won the Northwest community college singles title two years ago and placed third last spring.
"This is by far the single best recruiting class I've had at Whitman," Northam says. "To get so many strong players in one class is definitely unusual. What you normally expect is a slow trickle, maybe one or two excellent players in any given year."
Northam, who played on Whitman's nationally-ranked teams in the mid-1980s, served as a part-time coach for the Missionaries in 1990, 1993 and 1994. After brief coaching stints at Montana State-Bozeman and Boise State, he returned to Whitman as a full-time coach and director of tennis in the fall of 1997.
The Miller twins were nearly unbeatable in their four years as a doubles team at Auburn Riverside High School. Competing in the largest high school classification in Washington state, the duo won three consecutive state doubles titles, the only twosome to ever accomplish that feat.
"If David or Dane had chosen to concentrate on singles while they were in high school, I think either one of them could have won a state singles title," Northam says.
Last fall, after arriving at Whitman, the Millers advanced as far as the doubles semifinals at the Intercollegiate Tennis Association's Southwest Region Championships in San Antonio, Texas. They lost an 8-5 pro-set semifinal decision to Trinity University's top-ranked team, senior Sean Fifield and junior Stefan Parker.
David Miller, seeded No. 9 in the singles portion of the San Antonio tournament, advanced as far as quarterfinals, losing 7-5, 7-5 to the No. 4 seed, Tim Layman, a senior at Linfield College. Layman, who had to rally to win each set against Miller, eventually captured the tourney's singles titles.
Ly, who played his prep tennis at Centennial High School in Gresham, Ore., also made the quarterfinals of the San Antonio tournament, losing 6-3, 6-2 to Trinity's Fifield, the No. 3 seed. While in high school, Ly won a record four consecutive Mt. Hood Conference singles titles, qualifying each year for Oregon's state tournament.
Mam, who played at McKay High School in Salem, Ore., nearly gave Whitman a third participant in the singles quarterfinals at last fall's San Antonio tournament. His path to the quarters, however, was stopped by a 6-0, 5-7, 1-0 (10-7) loss to another seeded player. Mam was a doubles finalist at the Oregon state tournament in both 2002 and 2003.
"Phalkun has a huge upside as he starts his collegiate career," Northam says. Mam, who learned to play tennis from his parents, did not have any formal tennis training until coming to Whitman.
Ly and Mam have already formed another potent doubles combo for the Missionaries. At the San Antonio tournament, they staged an 8-4 upset of the No. 2 seeds, Linfield's Tim Layman and Chris Rivera, before losing in the quarterfinals.
Munday was the only member of Whitman's freshman class to lose in the opening singles round of the San Antonio tournament. He compensated, however, by winning the consolation singles bracket. Munday also teamed with Changstrom in doubles, advancing to the round of 16 before losing to the top-seeded duo.
Ly came to Whitman ranked No. 4 in singles among Pacific Northwest juniors. His four fellow freshmen carried rankings that ranged between No. 14 and No. 21, even though they had in some cases played a minimal number of qualifying matches.
As a comparison, Northam noted, recent Whitman graduate and tennis standout Tim Mullin arrived on campus in the fall of 1998 with a No. 17 regional ranking in singles. Mullin, a two-time NWC Player of the Year who broke Whitman's career record for wins, "improved a great deal in his time at Whitman," Northam says. "It will be interesting to see how this group of freshmen develops over time. Their potential is huge."
Rounding out Whitman's spring roster are junior Will Wyatt (Portland, Ore.), sophomore Aaron Cho (Federal Way, Wash.), and freshmen Daryl Gasca (Reno, Nev.) and Kenji Strait (Tokyo, Japan). Wyatt is in his second stint at Whitman, having played briefly two years ago before spending last year at Linfield. Cho saw limited action last spring for the Missionaries.
After opening its season at home against Whitworth, Whitman hits the road to play NAIA tennis powerhouse Lewis-Clark State and NCAA Div. I University of Idaho in mid-February. For Spring Break in March, the Missionaries head to California to battle four NCAA Div. III schools. One of those four matches, slated for March 18 against Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, will be played at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, which will be hosting the Pacific Life Open at the same time (see news release).
This spring's battle for the NWC title, in all likelihood, will involve Whitman, Pacific Lutheran and Linfield as the primary combatants. Whitman won its last title in 2000. After Pacific Lutheran won in 2001, Linfield was the victor in each of the past two seasons.
"Our conference has become very interesting, and very competitive, over the past four or five years," Northam says. "Linfield has very good players returning, and while Pacific Lutheran lost a lot to graduation, it has also brought in two very good players."
Whitman teams have lost in the conference semifinals in each of the past three years. "In terms of our talent and potential as a team, we've made a huge jump from last year," Northam says. "It will be fun to watch the freshmen respond to the big conference matches because I don't think it will bother them a bit. They may be freshmen, but they are very talented and experienced, and they aren't lacking in confidence."
"The freshmen are also a very tight group, almost a fraternity onto themselves," Northam adds. "They support one another, and they have a good time when they play. Having fun is always the best way to deal with the pressure of a big match.