New Team on Top

By Justin Long

Koenig on April 30, when the Amherst men upset Middlebury for their first regular-season win over the Panthers in 10 years

Amherst is the new king of Division III men’s tennis.

But you wouldn’t know it from talking with head coach Chris Garner, who modestly downplays his team’s 2011 national title—the program’s first.

It didn’t take long for Garner to turn the Lord Jeffs into a powerhouse. Amherst failed to qualify for the NCAA Championship in his 2008 debut season but came out of nowhere to advance to the NCAA title match in 2009 and 2010. This year the Lord Jeffs carried a 29-1 record into the postseason, notably upsetting defending national champion Middlebury on April 30 for their first regular-season win over the Panthers in 10 years. The following weekend the Jeffs won the program’s first NESCAC title since 1992.

Amherst seemed unstoppable when it returned to the national title match with a convincing 5-1 win over Williams in the semifinals. The next day the Jeffs were supposed to have met their match in Emory—the tournament’s top-ranked team. But in the blink of an eye they took a 4-1 lead and left three players in a neck-and-neck (-and-neck) race for the final point. Mark Kahan ’13—who was on the losing end of the winning point in last year’s NCAA finals—was aware of the situation. “Coach wouldn’t like to hear this, but I was looking at the scoreboard,” he says. “I wanted to clinch it for the team.”

Kahan won that race. His teammates stormed the court. Players caught Garner off guard, emptying a water cooler on him. Just four days after receiving his Amherst diploma, Moritz Koenig ’11 hoisted the championship trophy. “It was the proudest moment of my athletic career,” Koenig says. “After I graduated I knew there was only one thing left to do. Achieving that dream meant a lot to me.”

Amherst finished the year at 36-1. For Garner, the 36 wins weren’t nearly as important as the five seniors who shared that championship moment. Koenig was the only senior in the lineup, but the other four members of the Class of 2011—who were first-years when Garner came to Amherst—made the trip on their own dime. “I was just happy they were able to be together,” Garner says.

The Lord Jeffs lose only Koenig from their starting lineup. In all likelihood, they will be ranked No. 1 in the preseason and will be favored to repeat as national champions. Koenig hopes the team will keep in mind that it was only three years ago that Amherst missed out on the NCAA Tournament altogether: “I hope they remember where they came from so they can continue to compete at a high level without taking anything for granted.”

Garner knows there will be high expectations in 2012, but he isn’t concerned about winning another title. “They’re here for academics,” he says, sincerely. “If they don’t keep up with their studies, the rest of their Amherst experience will suffer, and that includes tennis. If they continue to mature, enjoy each other’s company and push one another, we’ll continue to be competitive.”

Photo by Samuel Masinter '04