Rivers and LaCava
James Rivers and Andrew La Cava celebrate their quarterfinal victory over Emory

Mobile, Ala. — With two victories on Thursday, Andrew La Cava (Jr., Bellevue, WA) and James Rivers (Honolulu, HI) became the first Whitman tennis players to play for a national championship over three decades. With a victory tomorrow evening, they would be the first non-skiing varsity athletes to win a national championship of any sort.

With the quarterfinals taking place at 11 o’clock this morning, La Cava and Rivers (the #4 seeds) found themselves up against Nick Szczurek and Jackson Isaacs of the defending national champion Emory Eagles. The Whitman duo came out as hot as the mid-day Alabama sun. They held the first game before taking advantage of an Emory double fault to go up an early break. After holding to make it 3-0, they continued to take advantage of the error-prone Eagles, breaking and holding to take a 5-0 lead. Emory finally held to get on the score board, but Whitman squashed any thoughts of a comeback by holding to win the set.

At a time when many doubles teams drop their guard, Rivers and La Cava upped their intensity at the beginning of the second set to break for a 1-0 lead. After trading holds to make it 2-1, Whitman broke again to take a 4-1 lead and never looked back, eventually winning the match 6-1, 6-1.

It was a statement match for the Missionaries against the defending national champions. Said Coach Northam, “James and Andrew played very solid tennis this morning. They jumped out to a quick lead and never looked back. I felt like they returned very well and never let the Emory team get into a groove. They put a lot of pressure on the Emory by making a high percentage of first serves.”

Andrew LaCava
Andrew La Cava, Jr.

The victory put a Whitman doubles team in the semifinals for the first time in Coach Northam’s tenure, but the pair didn’t have long to revel in the victory. A mere two hours after the conclusion of their quarterfinal match, they had to return to the courts to play Tanner Brown and Erik Lim of Johns Hopkins University. Before the semifinal, the pair of Blue Jays had compiled a very impressive record. Besides winning the Southwest regional to qualify for nationals, they had already beaten perennial power Amherst’s #1 doubles team in a dual match, and they were fresh off a straight-set victory over the #1 seeded doubles team in the tournament from Wisconsin-Whitewater.

Their resume did nothing to stop the torrid play of La Cava and Rivers in the early going, as the dynamic duo jumped out to a two-break 4-1 lead in the first set. That’s when Hopkins dug their heels in. They broke back to get to 4-3, but Rivers halted the Blue Jay momentum with a clutch hold to make it 5-3. Shortly thereafter, Whitman won a tight deuce game to take the set 6-3.

Serving first in the second set, River and La Cava took a brief 1-0 lead before surrendering a break to fall behind 1-2. The Missionaries responded to the first deficit they’ve faced this season well, immediately breaking back. The Blue Jays responded again, however, breaking and holding to take a 4-2 lead in the second set. At that point, Whitman reeled off three straight games to make it 5-4. With Hopkins serving to stay in the match, they took a quick 40-love lead before a couple big returns brought the game back to deuce. Two points from defeat, the Blue Jays hit some amazingly clutch shots to hold, and used that momentum to break in another long deuce game to take a 6-5 lead. In the next game, Rivers and La Cava saved four set points before eventually dropping the game, setting up the dramatic conclusion.

With the match tied at a set a piece, a 10-point tiebreaker decided the victor. After falling behind an early mini-break, La Cava seized some momentum for Whitman by picking a volley off his shoestrings to draw even at 3-3 at the first changeover. The Missionaries momentarily fell behind another mini-break at 4-5 before a Rivers lob and La Cava overhead knotted things up again at 5-5. The next point, a phenomenal La Cava return gave Whitman the lead for the first time at 6-5. Two points later, Rivers unleashed a thundering backhand return to make it 8-6, and finally with a 9-7 lead, La Cava ended the match with massive service ace, setting off a raucous celebration among the few Whitman fans in attendance. The final score: 6-3, 5-7, 1-0 (10-7) for Whitman

With the victory, Rivers and La Cava advanced to the finals where they will meet Matt Micheli and Trey Meyer of Williams. Micheli and Meyer, the #2 seeds, needed some late-match heroics of their own to advance to the finals, as they were 1-6, 6-3, 1-0 (10-4) winners over 3rd-seeded Warren Wood and Joe Dorn of Claremont-Mudd-Scripps. Meyer is no stranger to this situation, as he teamed with Bryan Chow to win this very tournament last year. The winner of the DIII finals will enter the “Super Bowl” where they will play off against the winners of the DII, Junior College, and NAIA tournaments for a spot at Division I Indoor Nationals at Flushing Meadows in New York next month.

The finals will be played at 5 PM Central Time tomorrow. Follow Coach Northam (@Northam) on Twitter for up-to-the-minute match results.