Lee-ding the way
Men’s tennis coach Lee Nickell continues success as Bulls’ head coach
Men's tennis coach Lee Nickell lectures one of his athletes. Nickell has earned his team's respect through his studious nature, vision for a championship and passion. Courtesy of UB Athletics
Lee Nickell approaches life with a lot of energy - it seems no task is too tough for him. During matches, he rarely cracks a smile, focused on every aspect of every volley.
His intensity and approach to coaching are what have gained him the respect of his players. When he is not educating his players on the court with tactics and techniques, he is reading up on coaching philosophies.
The men's tennis coach has studied one coach in particular: the late Jim Valvano, an NCAA champion basketball coach at NC State in the late '70s and early '80s.
After watching ESPN's recent documentary on Valvano, Nickell found a technique that caught his eye. At the first practice of every year, Valvano would have his team cut down the nets to put the 'dream of a championship' in is his players' minds.
A couple weeks ago at practice, Nickell did something similar.
"We played one point for the Mid-American Conference Championship," said junior Yevgeniy Jason Shkodnik, who is also the team's captain. "And when we won that point, we ran on top of each other and simulated it as if we just won the championship. I think different things he picks up from coaches that were successful help us during our matches."
The Bulls (8-6, 2-0 MAC) are currently sitting atop the conference and riding a two-game winning streak. This past Saturday, they claimed their first-ever victory in Kalamazoo against Western Michigan (16-8, 2-1 MAC), followed by a win at Toledo (18-8, 0-2 MAC) on Sunday.
Shkodnik said the team's success can be partially attributed to Nickell's celebration tactic.
"I saw it and I thought it was a cool idea to work with visualization and I want these guys to put themselves in that position," Nickell said. "You look at last week: We had two separate guys that had to win the match for us. I want them to visualize that pressure.
"I want them to visualize what happens when they are successful. And when they get into that situation later on in the season, it's something that they've already dreamed about and visualized about."
In June 2009, Nickell was hired as the men's tennis coach after an abysmal 2008 season, in which the Bulls went 7-11 and produced just one conference win.
However, after just one season at UB, Nickell made tennis in Buffalo relevant again. Nickell changed the complexion of the program, leading the Bulls to a 12-6 overall record and 5-0 MAC record, resulting in the team's first regular season conference championship. Nickell won MAC Coach of the Year.
Since 2009, the Bulls have produced three straight double-digit victory seasons.
"I think we had a good enough base of veteran players that have been here," Nickell said. "Then bringing me in with my recruiting contacts to bring in a few very good players and then the energy I brought was why we were so successful from the start. The success that we have had in the last few years has been the continuation of recruiting the right guys and keeping the energy maintained."
Last season, the Bulls were the top seed in the MAC Tournament and shared the regular season championship with Northern Illinois.
That success likely would not have been possible without the help of his experience as a player at Furman University.
Under legendary tennis coach Paul Scarpa (the all-time winningest coach in Division I men's tennis history), Nickell played No. 1 singles from 1998-2002.
Nickell saw success as a player, being named to the All-Southern Conference team twice in singles and once in doubles and taking part in a team that made it to its first-ever NCAA Tournament in 2001.
"Coach Scarpa was the biggest reason I chose to be a college coach," Nickell said. "I knew that half way through my freshman year that this was going to be my destiny, a college Division I coach, and he had a lot to do with that ... I look at my experiences as a tennis player and my time with coach Scarpa. I take the great things I learned from him and I also look at the mistakes he made and I made. I've made it my goal to make sure I don't let my guys repeat the same mistakes I made."
The coaching techniques Nickell has incorporated from Scarpa will be on display as the Bulls shoot for another MAC title this season.
They'll continue their journey on Friday, with a 9 a.m. matchup against Chicago State (1-19, 0-2 MAC).
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