The monkey that has been clinging to the Bulls' back has evolved into a full-blown gorilla. In the four consecutive years Buffalo has been in the MAC they have failed to win a match in conference.
Buffalo (10-10, 0-5 MAC), ranked as the sixth and final seed for the MAC men's tennis tournament, will try and break their losing streak Thursday afternoon at 1 p.m. when they take on the No. 3 seeded - and defending champion - Western Michigan Broncos (12-12, 3-2 MAC) in the tournament's first round at the UB Tennis Center across from the Ellicott complex.
The Bulls' MAC futility, however, belies the actual quality of the program. UB has posted .500 or above records in three consecutive years and has established itself as by far and away as the best tennis program in the area, head and shoulders above Big Three rivals Canisius and Niagara. They have also racked up wins against St. Bonaventure, the defending champion of the Atlantic 10 Conference, and Rollins College, one of the premier Division II schools in the country.
Featuring a talented team with strong senior leadership laden with dynamic freshmen, the question remains why the Bulls are still looking for that elusive first win in conference.
For one, several players on opponent's teams have previously played in professional tournaments, representing their home nations in Davis Cup play.
Buffalo, still in the preliminary stages of being in the MAC, does not yet have the budget to recruit abroad. Instead, they focus their efforts on recruiting blue-chip products close to home. This year was UB Head Coach Russ Crispell's best recruiting class yet. He landed gems in Randy Rocchio and Nick Zieziula, two of the most prized players to come out of the Western New York area in quite a while. The duo has been coined "Rock and Roll" due to their rock-star appeal and flair for the dramatic.
Rocchio, Zieziula, and the rest of the Bulls freshmen have struggled at times and have taken a while to adjust to the fierce level of play the MAC demands. Still, they are showing signs of turning the corner, winning UB's only conference doubles match of the season and going 12-6 on the year overall - the best record of any Buffalo pairing this season.
This weekend will also mark captain Justin Brtko's last match as a Bull, barring a UB tournament championship where they would receive an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The senior has been with the team for four seasons and will leave behind a legacy to the younger players that hard work and dedication will eventually earn the Bulls a spot amongst the MAC's elite. His outlook on Thursday's match-up against Western Michigan epitomizes the team's desperate determination entering the contest.
"We're ready to sweat and die for this match. If need be, we're going to crack them over the heads with tennis rackets," said Brtko.
While the chances of witnessing an assault with a deadly weapon may seem a bit farfetched, there should be some very real fireworks come Thursday. With tennis being one of the only sports at the collegiate level where the players also serve as referees and regulate their own matches, the chance of human error one way or the other is likely; the chance of conflict and controversy even greater.
Western Michigan has won the MAC two out of the past three years and already whitewashed UB 7-0 in their previous meeting earlier in the season. Buffalo, however, was only a point or two away from winning the crucial doubles point. The Broncos have lost all but one of their matches in which they lost the doubles point.
Buffalo realizes that winning the doubles may well give the Bulls the momentum they need, as well as annihilate any sense of self-doubt the Bulls have that they can win.
"If we can get that one point, it's huge. Obviously, then we'd only have to split the six singles matches," Zieziula said. "But, confidence wise, it would be a huge lift going into singles play."
Crispell concurred with Zieziula's assessment. I don't think we'll be able to win four single s matches. But if we win the doubles and a few balls go our way, anything can happen.
Buffalo is hosting the MAC tournament for the first time, with the other first-round match-up between No.4 Northern Illinois and No. 5 Toledo kicking off the action at 9 a.m. Thursday. First round winners will meet No. 1 seeded Bowling Green and No. 2 seeded Ball State in the semifinals Friday, with the winners advancing to the championship Saturday. Matches will be moved to the Village Glen Tennis Center in Williamsville or Sportsplex in North Tonawanda in case of inclement weather.