UB men's tennis claims another MAC title
The Bulls men’s tennis team (14-5, 7-0 Mid-American Conference) had its back against the wall Saturday. They were down 3-1 and an undefeated MAC season was dwindling away along with their chances at a MAC title. But the Bulls weren’t going down without a fight.
Freshmen Villhelm Fridell and Filip Grbic got things back on track against the Western Michigan Broncos (16-8, 6-1 MAC). They both were taken to three sets by their opponents, but pulled out the wins to tie things up for the Bulls. Then all hopes rested on the back of sophomore Ethan Nittolo. Nittolo dropped his first set of the day 6-3. He came back the next set to win in a tiebreaker 7-6. With the team behind him and one set to determine the MAC champion, Nittolo’s opponent jumped to a quick lead 4-1 in the third set. Nittolo pulled out two breaks to close things up and won out in a tiebreaker, sealing the victory, a tournament MVP and a MAC title.
“It all came down on him, we were down 3-1 and Villy and Filip were in the third set,” said Bulls head coach Lee Nickell. “Ethan was down a few breaks at the time and then Villy won and then Filip got a win in the tiebreaker, and Ethan broke the guy 5-4 to get back on serve and at that point Ethan just stepped up… I had no doubt Ethan was going to win that match.”
The Bulls had to make a comeback Saturday, but they have established themselves as the dominant force in the MAC. The team won nine straight games this season against MAC opponents. They defeated the Broncos twice and the Northern Illinois Huskies three times during the year. This is the program’s second MAC title in three years.
It’s the team’s fifth conference title in eight years.
“I’ve heard this thing ‘two in three years’ no five in eight years and this is from a program who had never won a MAC title before,” Nickell said. “From a program that was struggling to even win single handed dual matches in the MAC nine years ago, I’m proud our expectations have raised to a point where if we don’t win MAC titles we’re upset.”
But Nickell noted he wasn’t sure of his expectations heading into this year. He knew the quality of players was there but with only two returning players heading into the year, he thought the new group might need to “gel” first. They gelled quickly.
Buffalo succeeded this year despite their youth. Three freshmen started in conference meets for Buffalo this season. They combined for 34 wins throughout the season. Fridell went 11-3 at fourth singles for the year. Grbic matched that number at third singles. Freshman Hao Sheng Koay played at four different singles slots during the year including registering seven wins at first singles.
“The freshmen group, they don’t act like freshmen -- they embrace the pressure that’s been thrown at them,” Nickell said.
Now the battle-tested Bulls will move its attention to the NCAA tournament. The caliber of the competition will be taking a step forward but the Bulls are ready. The team’s non-conference schedule was difficult and they faced multiple teams ranked in the top 50. Now they will take their momentum into those games.
Their first round opponent will be announced Tuesday during the NCAA’s annual selection show. The tournament begins May 12.
“We want to win a round in the NCAA for our athletic department and get some positive momentum going for us,” Nickell said. “It’s been a rough month and we all are thinking about our fellow athletic members that have gone through some tough times and we want to represent this athletic department in the best possible way and our goal is to go there and win a round in the NCAA tournament for them.”
Daniel Petruccelli is an assistant sports editor and can be reached at email@example.com.