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There’ll be a lot more Irish in town tomorrow, and the Harvard men’s tennis team is hoping some of that luck rubs off on them.
The Crimson hosts one of the sixteen NCAA Division I Tournament regionals starting Saturday at the Beren Tennis Center. Harvard, ranked No. 47, will face off at 2pm against the 13th-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
Harvard is making its second NCAA appearance in three years, thanks to the automatic berth awarded to the Ivy League champion. The Crimson finished the Ivy season with a 6-1 record, the same as Columbia’s, but secured the bid by virtue of an earlier win over the Lions.
Notre Dame, despite being a Big East team from Indiana, is not a wholly unfamiliar team to the Crimson. At Harvard’s last NCAA appearance in 1999, James Blake ’01 and Co. defeated the Irish 4-2 in the opening round at Indiana State.
“It doesn’t matter that most of us haven’t been to the NCAA tournament,” co-captain Anthony Barker said. “The guys have gotten a lot of experience this year.”
Earlier this season both teams participated at the Fluitt Invitational at the University of Kentucky in October. The matches did not count towards the teams’ records, but Harvard was able to take two of the six singles matches in which both teams’ players competed.
It’s safe to say Notre Dame can be considered a “rival.”
Saturday’s opening round match will feature two rematches from that long-past Kentucky evening.
Freshman Cliff Nguyen gets a shot at revenge against Irish junior Javier Taborga. The serve-and-volleying lefty beat Nguyen, 1-6, 6-2, 6-5(4) at the No. 1 singles position at Kentucky, but the two will face off at No. 2 singles tomorrow.
Sophomore Oli Choo also lost a close match to Irish freshman Luis Haddock-Morales. Choo had jumped out in front to start the match but Haddock-Morales had battled back to win, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4. They will battle it out at No. 3 singles.
Both teams may suffer from a little bit of rust. Harvard has not played since Apr. 25, when it defeated Dartmouth4-3 in Hanover.
It’s been longer for the Fighting Irish. The last match it played was nearly three weeks ago, when it lost 4-2 to the University of Miami in the Big East championship.
The advantage for the weekend goes to the higher-seeded Irish, who are competing in their 11th straight NCAA tournament. The selection committee gave Notre Dame one of the 34 at-large bids.
Notre Dame also boasts a 16-6 record. Ten of those wins have come against teams that qualified for this year’s tournament; all six losses also came against tournament-bound teams.
The Irish have a diverse and deep lineup. Junior Casey Smith, the 91st-ranked singles player in collegiate tennis, starts at the No. 1 spot. Taborga and Haddock-Morales play Nos. 2 and 3, respectively.
At No. 4 is junior Aaron Talarico, who is currently riding an 11-match winning streak. Rounding out the singles are Brian Farrell and Matt Daly.
Talarico and Taborga pair up at No. 1 doubles and form an impressive combination. The two were selected for their second straight NCAA doubles tournament appearance, one of only five returning teams from 2000.
If the Crimson wants to win the doubles point it may have to focus its energy on the 2 and 3 spots, where the talent level drops considerably.
“The doubles point is fairly important,” Barker said. “It dictates the way you go after the other team.”
The University of Washington and Hofstra also play on Saturday. The winner of that match will take on the Notre Dame-Harvard winner in Sunday’s second round match at noon.
Washington, the 18th-ranked team and the top seed among the four teams competing at Harvard, finished the season with an 18-7 record, 3-4 in Pac-10 play.
The Huskies are led by sophomore Matt Hanlin, the No. 55 singles player in the nation. Another key component of the team is Slovenian transfer student Andrej Bizjak, who’s ranked right behind Hanlin at No. 56 and plays No. 2 singles.
The Huskies’ opponent, Hofstra, is the America East champion and the weakest team in this weekend’s field. The Pride finished the season12-4 overall and 4-0 in conference play. This is Hofstra’s third straight NCAA appearance.
Hofstra’s top players include sophomores Sergio Teixeira and Peter Harjes, as well as senior Duane Williams.
Harvard has a huge advantage playing at home in the Beren. Until this fall, the Crimson sported a five-year home winning streak, and even now is largely considered a favorite in every home match.
“Playing at home is such a boost to everyone’s game,” Barker said. “It can really make the difference.”
The home crowd this weekend ought to be enthusiastic. During the Harvard-Notre Dame match there will be a T-shirt giveaway for students, and the women’s soccer team will sell refreshments. Tickets are $3 for students and $5 for adults.
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