NORTH ANDOVER — They are the Warrior Six.
They prowl the Merrimack College campus, most often together.
No one man greater than the whole, they protect each other, be it from the elements or a simple stone in the road.
This is no clandestine fraternity. This is the Merrimack College men's tennis team ... the Northeast-10 Conference champion men's tennis team.
There are only six players on the team, the minimum. If somebody is sick, Merrimack has nobody to fill the spot. It's a loss. If that person plays doubles too, it's two losses.
Sunday, the Warriors host Bentley in the opening round of what is Merrimack's fifth straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
The Warriors, seeded No. 4 in the East, have won once in NCAA play, an opening round match in 2009.
Together, they look to make history this time around.
"My freshman year won first round, and since then, we've been bounced in the first round," said senior Max Eppley. "We're looking to change that this year. We're playing the same team we just beat in the NE-10 finals. And we are confident going in. It's going to be tough if we progress from there. We'll be staring at the No. 1 seed, Concordia, which is ranked No. 7 nationally. But right now, it's all about Bentley."
This is a team with no home courts on campus — they may be added as part of the new Volpe expansion. But the Warriors are accustomed to adversity.
Most programs have 10-15 players. The flu, a muscle pull or even a migraine simply aren't options here.
"Every time someone has a minor injury or mild flu, everyone freaks out," said Eppley. "It's like code red around here."
Merrimack did have to overcome a hand injury to No. 1 singles player Chris Barnhart earlier in the season, competing with five (meaning 2 forfeits in the nine individual contests).
"We actually won two matches, too," said the captain, Eppley.
First-year coach Sean Tully came into the position and focused primarily on fitness. No injuries would develop because his athletes weren't full prepared.
"If someone gets injured, were out of the running," said Tully, who took over the position from his close friend and former coach Chris Stevens. "We've attributed our season-long health to an increased emphasis in fitness ... we had guys running 2 miles before every practice, doing pushups, situps, high-energy workouts after practice to develop muscular endurance so we don't pull anything. We put a hurting on these guys in practice, so by the time they got to the matches, they had what it takes. The goal was to make tennis the least stressful thing we do."
The Warriors are 17-7 overall and 11-0 in the NE-10.
"I told our AD, we'd be like the 300-man army. If we can keep everybody healthy, all we needed was six," said Tully, a Melrose native who attended UNH. "These guys real tight-knit crew. Bringing in someone new might have been a detriment to us in breaking up the bond, we had. It's been pretty special to do this with just six."
Having just six does carry its privileges, too.
"We're not really crammed into the van on those long bus rides," said Eppley, a New York native who lived in Spain for eight years before attending the prestigious Saddlebrook Tennis Academy in Florida. "And there's plenty of room for all of us to warm up before matches. You look at a team like Bentley and there out there with 12 or 15 people piled into three courts. We have all kinds of room."
Petar Golijanin says he benefits most, of all the players.
"I like to sleep on the van rides, so I like it quiet," the Serbian native joked.
MEET THE WARRIOR SIX
No. 1 Chris Barnhart
Hometown: Longmeadow, Mass.
Record: 11-10 singles, 16-8 doubles
Did you know: Chris won the MIAA West sectional singles championship in 2010.
No. 2 Max Eppley
Hometown: Malaga, Spain
Record: 17-10 singles, 17-7 doubles
Did you know: Max attended the Saddlebrook Tennis Academy in Florida for high school. He's already competed in a pair of futures pro tournaments.
No. 3 Petar Golijanin
Hometown: Novi Sad, Serbia
Record: 19-9 singles, 20-7 doubles
Did you know: He hails from the same region that produced pro tennis star Novak Djokovic.
No. 4 Vince Bellino
Record: 16-9 singles, 13-9 doubles
Did you know: Although he lives in Amesbury now, Vince is a 2010 Andover High grad, who played baseball in high school.
No. 5 Sean Pahler
Hometown: Rumson, N.J.
Record: 17-7 singles, 16-9 doubles
Did you know: Sean captained the tennis and soccer teams at Rumson-Fairhaven High.
No. 6 Chris Toegemann
Hometown: Narragansett, R.I.
Record: 19-9 singles, 18-7 doubles
Did you know: Chris' sister Amy plays at rival Stonehill.
FROM SERBIA TO MERRIMACK VIA FACEBOOK
Merrimack junior Petar Golijanin came a long way to play his college tennis. A star in the Serbian Junior Davis Cup ranks, he had a handful of criteria, including a biochemistry major, being near Boston, and continuing to play tennis.
When he found Merrimack, he reached out to the lone "European" on the team, Max Eppley, who was listed as being from Malaga, Spain, on Facebook. A New York native, who played high school tennis in Florida, Eppley lived in Spain for 8 years. The Warrior was no fool, though, and told his now good friend and teammate, Golijanin, how great Merrimack was for Europeans.
And the Serb was sold.