WALLA WALLA - The Whitman College men's tennis team is headed to St. Louis, Mo., for the opening rounds of the NCAA Division III national championship tournament.
Whitman, the No. 2 seed in a six-team regional, gets a first-round bye and plays Saturday against the winner of Friday's match between third-seeded Wisconsin-Whitewater and sixth-seeded Westminster (Mo.).
The other half of the regional bracket, which includes the top-seeded Bears of Washington University, starts Friday with a first-round match between fourth-seeded Luther (Decorah, Iowa) and fifth-seeded Earlham (Richmond, Ind.).
The winner of the Luther-Earlham match advances to face the Bears, who are hosting the regional, in the second round on Saturday.
The winners of Saturday's two matches play on Sunday for a berth in the eight-team national finals, set for May 24-26 in Claremont, Calif.
Start times for the regional matches in St. Louis have not been set.
The national championship tourney starts Friday with 42 teams doing battle at eight regional sites around the country.
"We're very excited about our regional tournament assignment," Whitman coach Jeff Northam said. "We've been sent to the southern California regional the past three years, and that regional is typically the toughest one in the country."
That appears to be the case again this year.
UC-Santa Cruz, No. 5 in the latest national rankings, is hosting this weekend's southern California regional, which also includes No. 3 Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, No. 8 Pomona-Pitzer and No. 28 Texas-Tyler.
In comparison, Washington University at No. 6 and Whitman at No. 21 are the only teams in the St. Louis regional with a current national ranking. The two teams have not played this season, although both squads posted 5-4 wins over No. 11 Trinity (Texas) earlier this spring.
Washington University, 15-5 on the season, received an at-large bid to the national tournament after dropping a 6-0 decision to Emory University for last month's University Athletic Association title.
That victory gave Emory, 20-3 on the season and ranked No. 2 nationally, the UAA's automatic berth in the national championship field.
Whitman, 17-6 on the season, earned its fifth straight appearance in the national championship field by winning its Northwest Conference post-season tournament last month.
Whitman has little or no experience against either of its possible opponents on Saturday.
Wisconsin-Whitewater (26-5), an NCAA DIII independent in men's tennis, received an at-large berth in the national field while Westminster (11-5) earned an automatic berth by winning the six-school St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
Whitman and Wisconsin-Whitewater have never met on the tennis courts. Two years ago, however, Whitman rolled to a 9-0 victory over Westminster during a Spring Break trip to Hilton Head, S.C.
Luther and Earlham, the two teams that play Friday for the right to meet Washington University on Saturday, are both automatic qualifiers for the national tournament.
Luther (19-7) finished second during the Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference regular season but then toppled Coe College in the finals of their post-season tournament.
Earlham (17-3) won the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference post-season tourney after finishing in a three-way tie for first place during the regular season.