KALAMAZOO, Mich. -- The one year that Bates seniors Matt Bettles and Rob Crampton didn't make it to the NCAA Division III Men's Tennis Championships in either singles or doubles was the one that may have brought the other three to fruition.
Bettles and Crampton -- buddies, roommates, teammates, co-captains -- don their Bates uniforms Thursday to begin play in one last Division III Men's Tennis Championship. Crampton returns to the singles championship, where he is matched up against Daniel Brown of Texas-Tyler in the Round of 32, scheduled for an 11:30am start. The Doubles Championship Round of 16 begins later in the day, after which Bettles and Crampton will begin doubles play against Frankie Allinson and Max Sabel of Pomona-Pitzer in the Round of 16. Last year, the duo won its first-round match to reach the quarterfinals, and Crampton won three straight singles matches to become a national semifinalist.
As freshmen, both immediately proved themselves as strong elements of Bates' starting lineup -- Bettles (Taunton, England) started out as the Bobcats' No. 3 singles player, Crampton (Wilton, Conn.) at No. 6. By the end of the year, what they had seen brought them both to a similar conclusion.
"They both came up to me and said, 'We know now, if we work really hard, we can beat anyone in the country,'" said head coach Paul Gastonguay '89.
Not that they thought it would be easy -- they said they knew they'd have to work hard, and they were right about that, too. But it didn't take long to establish themselves among the top players in Division III, and there's been a starkly consistent quality to their lives since then, as roommates, students and tennis players.
"Rob and Matt can do some amazing stuff on the court," said Gastonguay. "They were just points away from reaching ITA college nationals in the fall -- they just lost a tough tiebreaker to Williams. But they didn't let that deter them -- they worked even harder. Both of them just evaluate their most recent match and then go back to the practice court, and they just keep getting better."
They were already good enough as a doubles team after one year together to be selected as alternates for the NCAA Doubles Championship. Bettles played No. 1 singles for the Bobcats that season, and he was picked as the ITA's Northeast Region Player to Watch after reaching the Round of 16 of the 2011 NCAA Singles Championship in Claremont, Calif. With Crampton soaking in the championship atmosphere and cheering him on, Bettles secured his first All-America honor. Crampton joined him in the ranks of All-Americans last year, expanding Bates' list to eight all-time. That illustrious list comprises Bud Schultz '81, Gastonguay and six subsequent players coached by Gastonguay.
During the 2010-11 academic year, a third top-notch player had emerged on Bates' roster, in 2011 NESCAC Rookie of the Year Timmy Berg. (And since then, a fourth, Pierre Planche '15, has made it four top players in Bates' lineup, who have become something like "interchangeable parts," capable of beating another "on any given day," says Gastonguay.) Berg replaced Bettles as Bates' No. 1 singles player, but it didn't seem to matter much to any of them. Crampton, Bates' No. 3 player in the singles lineup for most of last year, was the lone Bobcat picked to play in the NCAA singles, thanks to the 12-match win streak he rode into the postseason. After his foray into the national semifinals, Crampton was the one who started the current year at No. 1 for Bates, and he remained there.
So they're interchangeable parts to an extent. That said, "Rob's game is probably more suited for the No. 1 position," said Gastonguay. "He has what can be an overwhelmingly powerful game, beating up on everyone. He's beaten the No. 1 player from Amherst (Joey Fritz), who was top 50 in the nation as a junior player and could have played anywhere in Division I, and Rob beat him and did it again."
Gastonguay uses basketball as a point of comparison: both are excellent athletes, Crampton's the power forward, and Bettles is the point guard.
"Matt's much more of a finesse player. He slices the ball, mixes the pace up. He probably has the best hands in the country, which makes him very good at the net and is a tremendous asset in both doubles and singles. The creativity he has is phenomenal. Over the years we've tried to sort of streamline that creativity, looking to be more straightforward, create the short ball and come in in transition, where he can do a lot of different things."
Meanwhile, both men have exhibited the characteristic multi-faceted talents of a Bates student. Bettles, an English major has maintained a sparkling 3.67 cumulative grade-point average while majoring in English. The title of his honors thesis is “Did Anything Change? The Consistency of Satire’s Locality Throughout the Twentieth Century.”
Crampton will graduate with strong grades himself, as a double-major in economics and politics. An application he helped develop with his brother, called Crush List, has been downloaded over 15,000 times since debuting on iTunes a couple of months ago. In June he'll begin a job in New York City with Bloomberg.
Before that, he tests his tennis abilities on the national stage alongside his friend and teammate.
"Of course, it's great that we made it here together one more time, and I think we have a really good shot at doing well," said Crampton.
Bettles, too, sounds undaunted by his final collegiate athletic challenge. "The nice thing is, after playing together for three years, we know what each other does, and that's not true for many other teams. Even if we're struggling at any point, we'll know we've been in the same situation before."