A hard but important lesson was learned by the Harvard men's tennis team Saturday afternoon on the indoor tennis courts at Columbia University: no team, not even the mighty Crimson, is invinceable.
The Lions of Columbia handed the Crimson its first ECAC (East Coast Athletic Conference) loss of the early spring season in a 4-3 decision, taking two of the three doubles matches and winning three of the six singles contests.
"We knew we had to play well to beat them," junior Andrew Rueb said. "It was a dog-fight and we came up on the losing end."
The Crimson played its weekend matches without the services of number-one/two singles player, sophomore Todd Meringoff, and numberfour singles player Umesha Wallooppillai.
While their absence did not stop the Crimson from defeating the Quakers 6-1 on Friday afternoon in Philadelphia, the under-manned Harvard squad got more than it could handle on Saturday.
"It took a lot of things to go wrong for us to lose to Columbia," Rueb said. "And we still were within a few points of pulling it out."
The match against Columbia began badly and quickly grew worse.
In the earlier doubles action, the first-flight tandem of Rueb and freshman Josh Hausman defeated their opponents 9-8 in an eight-game proset.
The other two doubles matches, however, went to the Lions, and Columbia earned the single team point awarded to the winner of two out of three doubles matches.
Captain Marshall Burroughs and freshman Mitty Arnold dropped the number-two doubles match 8-6 and sophomores Howard Kim and Daniel Chung lost 8-1 at third doubles.
"They jumped on us right away," Arnold said. "They beat us pretty handily in doubles so we knew we were in trouble right from the beginning.
As singles play began the Crimson's hopes dimmed even further with Harvard dropping the first set in four of the six singles matches.
Rueb and Arnold had a relatively easy time of it at first and fourth flight singles, respectively. Rueb put away his opponent 6-3, 6-3, and Arnold won 6-1, 6-3.
At second-flight singles Burroughs, who had dropped the first set 3-6, managed to regroup and raise the Crimson's chances by taking the next two sets 7-5 and 6-1.
With the three singles victories for Harvard, however, the Crimson still found itself in the back seat.
Chung lost his match 6-3, 6-0, at number-three singles and junior Chris Laitala fell to his sixth-singles opponent 6-4, 6-4.
The deciding fourth point was played out at fifth singles as Kim, after dropping the first set 5-7, came back to take the second set 7-5. Kim's opponent bore down on the Harvard sophomore in the third set, however, and squeezed out a 6-4 win to secure the victory for the Lions.
The loss did not leave the Crimson shattered as one might expect when the EITA Champions for the last five years falls to a conference team.
Team members looked forward instead to up-coming matches and the ECAC tournament from where Harvard has a good chance to earn an invitation to the 20-team NCAA tournament.
"All we can ask for is to get to the EITA tournament with everyone healthy," Rueb said. "Hopefully from there we'll be able to battle into the NCAA's."
"The loss won't affect us that much," Arnold said. "We had two players missing, and I think we could have beaten them with everyone playing."
Still, the Crimson was not offering any excuses for its loss on Saturday.
It maybe could have, though: there had been some concern that Columbia had "stacked" its line-up, playing two singles players below their usual positions.
"Their number-four singles player had never been in their line-up before," Arnold said. "That was kind of questionable, but it's nothing you can prove. Plus, we had a chance to win on the court but we couldn't pull it out."
"We're all really disappointed but I think individually we're all playing better and moving in the right direction with our games," Rueb said. "Everyone's adding things to their games and taking more risks on the court and that's important at the NCAA tournament level."
While the ECACs and NCAAs are certainly within the Crimson's grasp it must focus on its remaining regular-season matches--including two this weekend at home against Navy and Princeton.
How quickly the Crimson can get back on track will be as much a test of the its mettle as was the Columbia squad it was defeated by on Saturday.