2014-15 was good to the UB Bulls
Coaching changes, three NCAA Tournament teams highlight solid year for Bulls
Success doesn’t come overnight.
Athletic Director Danny White has pushed for the re-branding of UB Athletics – the “New York Bulls Initiative,” as one would call it. We’ve seen it everywhere: new jerseys with “New York” on the front, the importance of facilities both old and new and the chances taken on head coaches for the sports teams.
It’s safe to say that White and his collective are making efforts to turn Buffalo into one of the best mid-major programs in the nation.
In the 2014-15 calendar year, the Bulls had a fair amount of success on the field. Three teams – men’s basketball, women’s soccer and men’s tennis – won their first-ever Mid-American Conference Tournament Championship and earned a spot in the NCAA Tournament. While none went past the first round in their respective tournaments, the fact that “Buffalo” was flashed on three NCAA Tournament selection days was a win in itself.
All three have staying power, too. The basketball team took the biggest hit, losing head coach Bobby Hurley and starting point guard Shannon Evans to Arizona State. But since his departure, head coach Nate Oats has recruited well – both for on-court talent and for his coaching staff – surrounding himself with a respectable base of talent with the star power to attract talent. If Oats can juggle the talent correctly, making it to the NCAA Tournament in 2016 isn’t unattainable.
On the other side, the men’s tennis team and women’s soccer team are both bringing back strong talent bases with experienced head coaches. The men are bringing back eight of the ten players from last year’s team that made it to the conference championship game the last two seasons, head coach Lee Nickell – who has four tournament final appearances – and their best player and Most Outstanding Player of the MAC Tournament Pablo Alvarez.
The women’s team is in the same boat. It is bringing back its head coach and its best players on each level. Head coach Shawn Burke, sophomore goalie Laura Dougall, junior forward and last year’s second leading scorer Celina Carrero, MAC Defensive Player of the Year Jackie Hall and the majority of last year’s NCAA Tournament team are returning. The table is set for not just a one more tournament appearance, but a string of appearances over the next four or five years.
And there’s hope for the others, too.
Teams that weren’t as successful experienced coaching changes. Midway through a losing season, White fired football head coach Jeff Quinn and later hired Lance Leipold away from Wisconsin-Whitewater, a Division III program. After Reed Sunahara opted to leave for the West Virginia job, White got former Penn State standout Blair Brown-Lipsitz to assume the same position.
Underclassmen shined last year, too. The softball team had nine underclassmen get playing valuable minutes, including three of its pitchers and three of its top five players while the baseball team had six, including two of its top four hitters in freshmen position players Ben Haefner and Charlie Sobieraski. The women’s tennis team had just one senior on their roster this past season and the women’s basketball team saw freshman guard Stephanie Reid arrive and take the starting point guard job.
There were some rough patches. Sunahara dropping everything he had started here to leave for West Virginia and firing Quinn in the middle of the year after he was given an extension just a year prior were some bad looks for the program, but not inexcusable.
Hurley’s departure and scorching of earth as he left was a bad portrayal for the program, especially as the rumors – emphasis on the word “rumors” – of White offering him just $1,000 more than the highest paid coach in the conference circulated. Ultimately, I think White did a good job of both hiring from within and dealing with Evans’ subsequent decision to transfer with Hurley.
With the “New York Bulls Initiative” in place, the rebranding of Buffalo sports will involve winning and winning big (a huge difference between the two). I believe the 2014-15 season was the start of just that. The success and NCAA Tournament appearances of three programs, the coaching changes for the football and volleyball teams and the underclassmen that got valuable playing time across the Buffalo sports programs should result in positive results in the very near future.
Time will tell whether this year will be the start of something prominent, whether the football team can make the leap into relevancy and if playing multiple underclassmen can help the baseball and softball teams. However, it’s a good place to start, and thus, the 2014-15 year was a net positive for UB sport teams.
Quentin Haynes is the co-senior sports editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org