WALLA WALLA - One year after losing a big, uber-talented senior class to graduation, the Whitman College men's tennis team shows few signs of being any easier to beat than they were last spring.
"This will be an interesting season for us because of the turnover, but the bottom line is that we have some very good players coming back and some very good freshmen coming in," Whitman coach Jeff Northam said.
The only seniors this spring are Etienne Moshevich, Chris Bailey and Quin Miller, but all three rank among the best and most seasoned players in the Northwest Conference.
Juniors Conor Holton-Burke and Adriel Borshansky, along with sophomores Jeff Tolman, Sam Sadeghi and Matt Tesmond, give Northam enough battle-hardened veterans to create many match-up nightmares for other teams in the NWC.
And that doesn't include a strong freshman class headed by Andrew La Cava, who has already shown the ability to play at the upper echelons of the conference.
Other rookies battling for time on the court are Steven Roston, Will Huskey and Atanas Atanasov.
Whitman has thoroughly dominated the NWC over the past three seasons, winning three straight conference crowns while piecing together a regular season winning streak that has reached 66 matches.
Northam's racketeers have also qualified for the NCAA Division III national championship field in each of the past four years, and they begin the 2011 spring season with a No. 19 national ranking.
Whitman kicked off its "spring" season in late January, losing to NCAA Division I Eastern Washington University in Cheney. The team faces another tall task today when it faces perennial NAIA powerhouse Lewis-Clark State in Lewiston.
The NWC regular season gets rolling for Whitman with Feb. 20-21 matches in western Oregon against Pacific, George Fox and Willamette. Whitman's home openers are set for Feb. 26, with matches against Lewis & Clark and Linfield.
"It's true that we lost seven very good seniors and that's a big loss for any team in any sport," Northam says. "And one of the seniors we lost was Matt Solomon, who was arguably the most accomplished athlete we've had at Whitman for many years.
"But this isn't the first time we've made the transition from a big senior class. It happened not that many years ago, and it was fun to see how the returning players responded."
As Whitman pursues what would be its fourth straight NWC championship, it will be following a different path from recent years when the top six teams met for a postseason tournament at a single site, normally Yakima.
This spring, only the top four teams from the regular season advance to the NWC post-season, with the No. 1 seed hosting the semifinals and finals on back-to-back days.
The winner gets an automatic berth in the NCAA Division III national championship field.
And to create more opportunities for out-of-conference matches, the NWC has discontinued its use of a full double round-robin schedule for the regular season. What that means, in essence, is that Whitman will play four conference teams twice and four teams once.
If two teams play twice with each side winning one match, the aggregate scores will determine which teams gets one "victory" in the final conference standings.
Whitworth, Pacific Lutheran, Puget Sound and Pacific are the NWC teams Whitman will play twice this spring.
"Overall, the conference has gotten much better and deeper," Northam says. "Willamette has gotten a lot better the past two years, as have Pacific and George Fox. Linfield always has a good team, and Whitworth should be competitive again.
"There are a lot of teams that can battle for those top four spots. Every match is going to be critical."