NORTH ANDOVER — Merrimack College enters this weekend’s NCAA Men’s Tennis Tournament as the No. 3 seed in the East Region. The Warriors will head to LIU Post on Saturday to take on Adelphi in the opening round of the tournament in what will be a rematch of last Saturday’s Northeast-10 Championship, which the Warriors won 5-4.
Merrimack won that title in come-from-behind fashion, after it trailed 2-1 at the conclusion of doubles and needed to rally, winning four of the six singles competitions, to clinch the title, their third in the last four years. Merrimack lost in the NE-10 Championship last season to Southern New Hampshire.
“I definitely think that it gives us confidence going into this weekend,” said Merrimack co-captain Miguel Belfort, who captains the team along with senior Vince Bellino. “Just for the past year, it was good to get that win. Last year to go 10-0 in the NE-10 and then not win the championship, that was tough, so knowing we can get over that and win definitely helps our confidence. Especially the way we won, because we were down 2-1 after doubles and knew we needed to put it all together and really do our best to win in singles.”
Perhaps the biggest win for the Warriors came at No. 1 singles, where sophomore Steven Francis beat Northeast-10 Player of the Year Matteo Cannavera, handing him his first conference loss of the season.
“That was huge and a great job,” Belfort said. “When we won, we were all very happy. That was one of our goals.”
Another highlight was sophomore Nick Majewski at No. 6 singles. In the first set, he trailed 5-2 before winning five straight games to take a 7-5 win in the first set. He went on to win the match in the second set.
“With Nick, it’s all about the mind,” said first-year head coach Aaron Bergeron. “He’s great at being his own critic. He’s down 2-5 and not feeling that great. You just need to talk to him and get him through that tough spot. Once he starts playing like Nick, he’s going to win.”
The Warriors have advanced to the NCAA Tournament for an eighth consecutive season after going 13-2 in the region this year. The only regional losses on the Warriors’ record came at the hands of the top-two seeds in the regional, No. 1 Concordia and No. 2 NYIT. Merrimack enters the regional as the third seed.
There will be plenty of familiarity on Long Island this weekend. Of the six other teams in the regional, Merrimack has played four over the course of this season, going 3-2 with a pair of wins over Adelphi and another victory over District Columbia.
“It’s good and bad,” Belfort said. “We know them, but they know us. So everyone is the same. To prepare, it’s good to know that we can compete with these teams because we have during the season. There is going to be no wondering what a team is going to be like.”
Over the last decade, Merrimack has been one of the most dominant programs in the region. After posting just two wins during the 2003-04 season, the Warriors have posted double-digit victories in 10 of the last 11 seasons, including a 76-5 record in the Northeast-10 regular season.
Even with all that success, this team might be one of Merrimack’s most talented to come during this extended run, despite being one of the youngest programs in the league.
Out of the nine players on the roster, only two — Bellino and Belfort — are upperclassmen. There are four freshmen and three juniors playing significant roles for the Warriors.
“For us [as a captain with Bellino], I think we guided them a little more in the beginning of the season because college tennis is so much different than what we’ve played in up to this point,” Belfort said. “Especially guys like me, the international players, it’s much different. Until Merrimack, we were only playing for ourselves, and it was very individual. You’re not on a team. It’s much different in college tennis because you are playing for a team and representing your school. There are ways, if you’re having a bad day, that a teammate can lift you up and make up for it.
“The players we have are very talented. This is my third year, and I think this is the most talented team we have had in my time. We are very talented and Coach Bergeron has helped us get to this point. We know we can compete with anyone in the tournament.”
Merrimack’s program has become a hotbed for international student-athletes. Five of the players hail from outside the United States, with homes in Peru, Venezuela, South Africa, Russia and Australia.
Belfort says Merrimack has a unique draw to international tennis players. Not only does it allow a student-athlete to compete against some of the top teams in the country, but academically, it’s a good fit for a number of international students. Three of Merrimack’s international students are engineering majors, for example.
“I know for me I was excited because it’s a great school to not only play tennis, but also academically and that was very important to me,” Belfort said. “I’m an electrical engineering major, and Merrimack had everything I wanted looking for a school.”
There’s also a sense of family surrounding Merrimack’s tennis program that’s perhaps more ubiquitous than what’s found other places. It’s something that has been mentioned often throughout the years, both by former head coaches and players.
With some players’ actual families thousands of miles away, that togetherness has real drawing power.
“I could feel that it’s a family right away,” Belfort said. “With a lot of us being international students, we’re here and our families are back at home. I think that is a big reason why Merrimack is so attractive, is because everyone feels that family atmosphere. Our team is our family.”
That team will head to New York looking to make more Merrimack history this weekend. No Merrimack team has ever won a regional, despite the years of success in the NE-10. This team — this family — is looking to change that.
“We are very focused,” Belfort said. “We are very focused on making sure we play our best.”