Wabash upsets #4 seeded Oberlin in NCAC quarterfinals

Ethan Koeneman ’26 celebrates his doubles victory against Oberlin on April 28, 2023, at DePauw University. Courtesy of the North Coast Athletics Conference.

Very few good things are known to take place at the school down south. But on Friday, April 28, the Wabash tennis team did something remarkable at the DePauw indoor tennis facility, where they faced Oberlin College in the first round of the NCAC tournament. 

Coming into the tournament, the 13-8 Wabash tennis team, seeded fifth, was in a unique position—they would be playing in the tournament for the first time since 2019. Their opponent was the fourth seeded Oberlin, who had served the Little Giants a 3-6 loss earlier in the season. But the Wabash team was determined to upset the Yeomen and move on to the conference semifinals. 

Before the match even started, it was clear that the contest was going to be a nail-biter. And the Little Giants knew they needed to get wins in two out of the three doubles matches, so that they could head into singles with a 2-1 lead and the energy it would take to outlast the Oberlin singles. 

In the previous match against Oberlin, the Little Giants had only won one doubles match, so Head Tennis Coach Daniel Bickett decided to take a big risk and try new doubles pairings. Cole Borden ’24 and Alvaro Alonso-Sanchez ’23 would play doubles #1. At doubles #2, Liam Grennon ’24 and Cole Shifferly ’26 paired up for the first time. And last but not least, Ethan Koeneman ’26 returned to doubles #3 joined by Augusto Ghidini ’26. 

“We’ve had a lot of good doubles teams throughout the year,” said Bickett. “This was a lot of understanding of what was going to give us our best situation to go up two out of the three doubles matches. And I had a lot of faith in the teams that we put out there.”

The doubles portion of the match was a tight contest. Borden and Alonso-Sanchez held out for a while before falling 4-8. But the #2 and #3 teams played some of the most exciting matches college tennis has to offer—trading leads, breaking then breaking back and finding unbelievable points with shots that seemed impossible. After a long time battling at the two spot, Grennon and Shifferly found the break they needed and pulled away to win their match 8-4. This left the match score tied 1-1 with doubles #3 fighting over the lead and the momentum heading into singles. 

Koeneman and Ghidini, after overcoming an early deficit, were holding on to just enough of a lead to win them the match if they could just find the final game. But Oberlin wasn’t ready to give in just yet. The Oberlin #3 team managed to sneak out a must-win game and tie the match 7-7, sending the two teams into a seven point tiebreaker. 

This did not turn out well for the Yeomen, however. Koeneman and Ghidini stepped it up and floored the opponents 7-2 in the tiebreaker. Bickett’s doubles gamble had paid off. Just halfway into the match, the Little Giants had turned out a major victory and would be heading into singles with the energy necessary to find the three singles wins they needed to complete the upset. 

“Going up 2-1 in doubles was monumentally important,” said Bickett. “We’ve had a lot of close matches this year, against really solid competition. That’s the first time this year that we’ve actually had a lead after doubles. And when you’re playing a team that good it’s a lot to ask to win four or five singles matches. But to be able to split the singles matches is a little bit less of a monumental task.”

Just as the doubles had been a daunting battle for the Little Giants, singles held another challenge that the team would have to find some way to overcome. In the first match against Oberlin, the Wabash team had only won two of the six singles matches. Now, even with a 2-1 lead, they needed to win three singles matches to capture a 5-4 win in the match. Just as doubles had, singles came down to the wire. 

The singles portion started off with a huge win for the Little Giants. At #4 singles, Ghidini, who had lost after three close sets in the earlier match against Oberlin, put up one of his best matches of the year and stormed away with a 6-1, 6-2 win. 

“In the first match, it was really tight,” said Ghidini. “I had a lot of match points and it was a really, really close match. But this time I was really focused on my game, and I was trying to make everything simple. I was just focused on my game to be honest and I think I was playing really well. He might have played a little bit worse this time but in part because I was playing better as well.”

Up 3-1, Wabash had the extra singles win they needed to claim the match. And that wasn’t all. Borden, who had also lost his match in the first contest against Oberlin, was hitting like the world depended on him. He found a way to win his #3 match 6-2, 6-2 and turned over a second match for Wabash. The team now lead 4-1 with only one more win needed to secure the match. 

“The second time I played this guy from Oberlin, I knew that my game was enough,” said Borden. “Before, I was trying to do too much out wide. I was going for passing shots with risky angles. My opponent’s strength is running around the court and getting to balls. This time, I decided to play through the middle of the court and make him try and dictate points. He couldn’t do that, so I won the match.”

But just as they had done late in doubles, Oberlin would put in a word of their own. Alonso-Sanchez, playing at the #2 spot, was unable to win, eventually losing 6-2, 6-0. Next, #5 singles, Tharakesh Ashokar ’26 would fall 6-4, 6-2. The match score had shifted to 4-3 with the Little Giants hanging on to a narrow lead, but things were not looking good on the two courts still playing. 

Shifferly had won his match at #2 singles the first time the teams had faced each other. But now he was making his debut at singles #1. Oberlin’s top singles player proved to be too much for the freshman. After a long battle and forcing a first set tiebreaker from behind, Shifferly would lose the match 6-7, 2-6. The match was now tied 4-4 with singles 6 still fighting. Both teams lined up on the sidelines to cheer on their player, as the two #6 singles players battled it out for the match. 

Grennon struggled early on in his match. While he had won against the same opponent 6-2, 6-2 earlier in the season, the pressure of the NCAC tournament can make anything happen. His opponent was playing an incredible match and seemed to find an answer for every shot thrown at him. Grennon trailed for most of the first set after giving up an early break. The pressure mounted as the set progressed. Then down 4-5, when one game would cost him the set, Grennon broke back. Grennon would win the next game in a deuce point to capture the first set of his match. But one set doesn’t always account for much in a tight match.

“I felt phenomenal, knowing that it was going to come down to Liam,” Bickett said. “I think a lot of it is just due to the fact that he’s been in that situation before. And that’s the first time he’s pulled it off. He’s been in those high pressure situations, and he’s failed before. And I think that gave me the most confidence of all, because he knows that win or lose, the team is still gonna be there for him, the team is still gonna love him. And that the sun’s gonna rise tomorrow. And so when you’ve been in those situations and you’ve failed. You know that failure is not the worst thing in the world and you’re not afraid of it. And so I knew he wasn’t going to be afraid of losing that match and he was just going to be out there, playing to win.”

“I was really less nervous than I thought I was going to be,” said Grennon. “I didn’t really know that I was for the whole match until everybody had formed a line. 

Grennon’s second set started off with a spectacular demonstration of the two players’ competitive drive. In the deuce point of the first game the two put on a tense 88 ball rally, which Grennon would eventually lose after his opponent found his way to the net. But by the next changeover, Grennon had struck back, breaking his opponent’s serve and taking a 2-1 lead in the second set. It was here that the last of the other matches had finished up, and all eyes turned to court six to see who would come out on top in the close struggle. 

The match progressed to 3-2, Grennon leading by the next changeover. The tension continued to mount in the DePauw tennis center, as the closest match of the NCAC tournament crept towards a conclusion. Both teams treated every point like a huge victory to give their player as much energy as they could. The two players held out again and traded sides at 4-3. 

“There were some early points where I had to hustle pretty hard just having the guys there cheering let me kind of save my energy and just lock in,” said Grennon, “So I really would be lying if I said I was nervous because I wasn’t. But it was an absolute honor.”

Grennon served first and pushed the game to 5-3, just four points away from a Wabash victory. No stranger to 4-4 positions, he was prepared to outlast his Oberlin opponent. Grennon broke his opponent’s final serve to win the match 7-5, 6-3 and secure the Wabash team a 5-4 victory over the Yeomen. The Little Giants stormed the court to celebrate the win. 

“Liam has given everything he has to Wabash,” Borden said. “He works unbelievably hard in everything he does. He is super involved on campus and still brings high energy to the team every day. Winning in this fashion was validation of all the good things he has done this year. Seeing him clinch the match was awesome. Rushing the court for the first time ever was an experience we won’t forget!”

With the win the Little Giants advanced to the semifinal round of the NCAC tournament for the first time since 2011. The next day, the team faced off against the #1 seeded Denison, who would defeat the Wabash team 5-0. However, the Little Giants had succeeded in their goal for the season by returning to the conference tournament and upsetting Oberlin to break their twelve season cold streak. 

“It’s a really, really big step for our program,” said Bickett. “And seeing what it’s going to take to pull out those tight matches, because we’ve been in so many of them this year and we haven’t pulled them out. So to flip the script on a match from earlier this season. And to do it against a really well coached, really hard competing team. I think that that’s more important than just being able to make the semifinals of NCAC, but it’s still pretty cool nonetheless.”

The Little Giants finished their season with a 14-9 (3-4 NCAC) record. The team will graduate one senior, Alonso-Sanchez, who has been an integral part of the team for the past two seasons. With the help of a promising new class of recruits, Wabash tennis will no doubt look to make semifinal appearances a regular for the program moving forward. 

Ethan Wallace ’25 is a member of the Wabash tennis team.