Men’s tennis wins first Ivy League title since 1997

by Mark Cui | 4/30/18 2:25am

On Sunday, Apr. 22, the Dartmouth men’s tennis team defeated Princeton University 4-1 to finish 6-1 in the Ivy League and clinch its first Ivy League title since 1997.

“It was crazy,” David Horneffer ’20 said. “We stormed the court, all came together, hung out afterwards and reflected on it a bit. It was just an amazing experience.” 

As head coach Chris Drake noted, this year’s Ivy League was as strong as it’s possibly ever been. Six teams were ranked in the top 50 in the nation at some point in the season, with Columbia University in the top 20 and Harvard University spending most of the year in the top 30. 

The team started off the year winning its first 12 matches, a Dartmouth school record for consecutive wins, and the ECAC Indoor Championship title for the first time in school history. Fliegner explained that the win streak was motivated by a disappointing 2016-17 season and a relaxed mindset. 

“The first win streak started from motivation from last year,” Fliegner said. “It wasn’t a great year, and we knew we had to work very hard from the get-go. We just stayed really relaxed, and took each match as it came instead of worrying about winning or losing each one.”

However, the win streak came to a halt after the team finished the ECAC Championship. The team then lost its first Ivy League match against Harvard University 4-0 on Mar. 31, despite beating them earlier in the year. According to Fliegner, the team used the setback as motivation to bounce back and win its next six Ivy League games. 

During Ivy League play, the biggest win of season was arguably against Columbia University on Apr. 15, which hadn’t lost an Ivy match on home court since 2011. The Big Green was down 3-0, but clawed back to win the match 4-3. 

“Winning that match made the team start thinking that ‘We can do this,’” Drake said. “They brought that mentality into their next couple of games into Penn and Princeton to clinch the title.” 

Last season, the team finished 11-14 overall and 3-4 in the Ivy League, making this year’s 20-5 overall record and 6-1 Ivy League record a noticeable step up. Fliegner noted two factors that made this team so special: the team depth and team chemistry.

“We have a very deep team, meaning that we’re tough and competitive at every spot in our lineup,” Fleigner said. “From an intangible standpoint, we’re pretty much each other’s closest friends. That helps on the court since we know each other really well.” 

David added that the drastic improvement in record was the culmination of each team member continuing to practice hard and improve as well as the addition of strong freshmen. 

“It was an accumulating effect of putting in the work,” Horneffer said. “We had a few breaks earlier in the season that helped us and added to our confidence. The strong group of five freshmen added a ton to our team, clinched some big matches for us and got us a lot of wins.”

Another contributing factor to the team’s success was the significant support it received throughout the season. The support began from the six players on the team’s bench. 

“I don’t think the guys who don’t play in the lineup get enough credit,” Fliegner said. “They’re a huge part of the team, and just as critical to advancing the goals of our team. Especially when we’re playing on the road where we don’t have a lot of stands, they are our biggest support base.”

Drake added that outside support was also crucial to the team’s season performance. 

“We’ve got a lot of support that’s helped us along the way from Dartmouth, from the athletic department, from our friend groups and from the local community,” Drake said. “We had 300-plus fans out in the matches for Penn and Princeton. It’s not an easy thing to do, and while our guys deserve a lot of credit for what they’ve done, they certainly didn’t do it alone.” 

While Drake is proud of his team for winning the Ivy title, he will remember the team for much more than just its overall record of wins and losses. 

“They embody a lot of the things we want Dartmouth to be about,” Drake said. “They support each other really well. They’re very resilient; they’ve bounced back, hung in there, went through ups and downs and still stayed together as a group. It’s a gritty group, [and] they can handle the moment pretty well.”

Despite the end of the regular season, the team’s overall season is not quite over. By virtue of the team’s record in the Ivy League, it earned the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Championship. The Big Green will find out its first-round opponent during the NCAA selection show on May 1, and the tournament will take place at Wake Forest University on May 18. For now, the Big Green can take a much-needed break after a grueling season that began in the fall.

Two years ago, the team made the NCAA Championship but fell to Tulane University. With the memory fresh for the upperclassmen, one of the team’s goals is to try to make it past the first round this time around. 

“Making it there last time was a huge accomplishment for us, but we want to take it a step further and try to accomplish even more for the legacy of our team.” Fliegner said. “The main goal is to hopefully win a round or two.”

While Horneffer also echoed the team’s goal of making it past the first round, he emphasized that the team is focused more on just playing well.

“Rather than focusing on the result, our team’s message is to focus on what we control and play well,” Horneffer said. “If we focus on what we can control, then hopefully the result will come.”

Regardless of the outcome of the NCAA Championship, the team looks to build off of this incredible season and continue to improve for next season.

“This shows that we’ve been doing the right things during the offseason and in practice,” Horneffer said.