WALLA WALLA - The four-time Northwest Conference champion Whitman College men's tennis team shoots for a fifth straight trip to the NCAA Division III national championships when it hosts the NWC playoffs this weekend.
Whitman earned the right to host the playoffs, which follow a new format this season, by finishing atop the regular season standings with a 12-0 record.
Willamette is the No. 2 seed after posting an 11-1 NWC record during the regular season. The lone blemish on the Bearcat record was a 9-0 setback to Whitman in late February in Salem.
No. 3 Whitworth (8-4 NWC) and No. 4 Pacific (7-5 NWC) complete the playoff field.
Saturday's first semifinal gets started at 10 a.m. and pits top-seeded Whitman against fourth-seeded Pacific.
Saturday's second semifinal, which starts at about 2 p.m., matches No. 2 Willamette against No. 3 Whitworth.
The winners then meet at 11 a.m. Sunday with the prize being a spot in the NCAA DIII national championship field.
Whitman notched two wins over Pacific during the regular season while Willamette edged Whitworth 6-3 in the lone meeting between the two schools in late February.
Fans of all four teams can disregard those earlier results once the tournament gets underway, says Whitman coach and tournament host Jeff Northam.
"Those of us with the Whitman program look forward to playing, and we know the other three teams - Willamette, Whitworth and Pacific - are playing well as they come into the conference tournament," Northam said.
"I think all three teams are having their best seasons since I have been coaching at Whitman," he said. "All three teams are legitimate contenders to represent the NWC at the NCAA Division III tournament in May."
Weather permitting, matches this weekend will be played on the four outdoor at Whitman.
The Bratton Tennis Center, which has four indoor courts, is the standby in case of rain.
Matches start with three flights of doubles before moving into the six flights of singles. Each match ends as soon as one team scores the clinching fifth team point.
This year's new playoff format is a break from recent seasons, when the top six teams in the conference met at the Yakima (Wash.) Tennis Club. The lower four seeds met in first-round matches with the winners advancing to semifinal bouts with the top two seeds.