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This time last year, Ryan Browne, Cliff Nguyen and Mark Riddell were at the top of the high school tennis scene, excelling in such places as California, Pennsylvania and Florida.
This weekend, none of that mattered, as instead the three played the role of inexperienced freshmen competing in their first dual matches at the ECAC Fall tournament.
For the first time, Harvard hosted the 16-team championship at the Beren Tennis Center, which brought together all the Ivy League teams and schools such as Virginia Tech and Army for the only major autumn championship in the Northeast.
Despite being seeded No. 2, the Crimson fell quickly in the semifinals, 5-2, to a more experienced and tougher Princeton squad.
Browne, Nguyen and Riddell held the top three singles spots, respectively, an almost unprecedented occurrence for a team which won this tournament last year on the strength of its upperclassmen.
"[Head Coach] David Fish and assistant coach [Peter] Mandeau saw us playing some tournaments here at home and in Kentucky," Browne said. "And after we had played challenge matches against each other, they put me at No. 1."
Considering the sheer number of freshmen (6) and their playing abilities, Fish really had no choice but to put up young players.
That move succeeded in the first two rounds, when Harvard defeated Colgate and Army, but was knocked flat on its face against No. 3 Princeton on Sunday.
The day started off well, with the Crimson winning the doubles point. Freshman George Turner paired with Nguyen at No. 3 doubles to narrowly defeat the Tigers duo of Henrick Chasse and Dan Friedman, 8-6. Harvard sealed the point with a win at No. 1 doubles. Browne and Riddell took out Princeton senior John Portlock and sophomore Trevor Smith in a tense 8-7 (7-4) victory.
Starting strong in the singles matches, the Tigers kept the momentum they had gained from rolling over both Brown and the University of Connecticut in the previous rounds. In five of six singles matches, Princeton had won the first set.
Harvard co-captain Anthony Barker was the first victim falling, 6-3, 6-2 at No. 6 singles to Tim Kofol. At the No. 4 slot, sophomore Oli Choo was handled by Portlock, who put him away. 6-3, 6-3.
Browne, who had to face Princeton senior and top Ivy League foe Kyle Kliegerman at the top singles position, lost for the second time in the tournament, going down, 6-3, 6-3. With the Tigers one point away from victory, things did not look for the Crimson.
Turner, at No. 5 singles versus Chasse, won the first set and was up a break in the second. Riddell and Nguyen were on the ropes in their respective matches, but each match started to go in Harvard's favor.
The fate of the match hinged on Riddell's second-set tiebreaker against Smith. Both fought neck-and-neck but Smith edged Riddell, 7-5 in the breaker.
With the match clinched, Turner's victory over Chasse, 6-5, 6-4, was too late. Incidentally, Princeton defeated Virginia Tech for the title Monday morning.
Despite the 5-2 loss and its inability to defend the ECAC title, Fish was glad just to see his young recruits in action.
"The experience of their lineup proved too tough today, but we are building for the long term," Fish said. "We'll use this match to continue to learn about where we are now and where we want to be when the NCAA tournament starts in May."
Others weren't so forward looking, however.
"We weren't going in expecting to lose, so it's disappointing," Browne said. "We are a really young team, but to be honest, they just outplayed us."
Princeton had some decided advantages, including a more explosive and prepared lineup. Harvard players spent most of the afternoon hitting defensive shots.
"The matchups did seem to favor them," Browne said.
Earlier in the weekend, Harvard had less trouble. In the first round against Colgate, the Crimson simply rolled up and smoked the overmatched Red Raiders, 7-0. No Harvard player gave up more than three games in a set.
Facing Army in the quarterfinals the team had a bit more trouble. By winning at Nos. 2 and 3 doubles, Army took the lead by clinching the doubles point. Army's Marshall Clay beat Browne, 6-5, 6-4, but that was all the Black Knights could muster. Harvard won at Nos. 2 through 6 singles to win the overall match 5-2.
Harvard's next action comes in the form of individual tournaments at Penn and Dartmouth.
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