For two months last summer, Lee Nickell made his case to become Buffalo's men's tennis head coach. Former coach Sherif Zaher resigned in April to return to Egypt, and Athletic Director Warde Manuel's search for a replacement went national. Manuel was determined to find the guy who would make Buffalo's tennis program relevant.
When interviewed, Nickell, a Buffalo assistant in '08-'09, stressed potential to Manuel.
That was only because there were no other positive adjectives to describe the team. Buffalo had just come off a 7-11 season that included just one Mid-American Conference victory. It was the third year of a miserable stretch for Buffalo tennis – all with Zaher leading the team – in which Buffalo won only three conference games.
There was no team confidence or camaraderie. The team was a divided group of frustrated individuals.
"What I think I did [in the job interview] was I sold Warde and the crew on the potential and where I think this program could go," Nickell said.
It'd be an understatement to say that the potential Nickell referred to was realized.
Manuel hired Nickell in June, sparking an unthinkable turnaround this season. With a week to go before the MAC Tournament, the Bulls sit at 12-6 and a perfect 5-0 in MAC play. The regular season was capped when Buffalo traveled to 14-8 Ball State on April 17, grabbed a 4-3 victory and captured the team's first-ever MAC Regular Season Championship.
The team heads to the MAC Tournament as the No. 1 seed with hopes of clinching a NCAA Tournament appearance.
The difference now from the three-year stretch of futility? Ask any of Buffalo's players and they'll say confidence and chemistry.
"I knew we had much better players and we could actually believe in ourselves because were trying to believe in nothing [in previous years]," said senior Kirill Kolomyts. "This year I was actually very confident in our team and I knew what we could achieve."
Nickell has a lot to do with the successful season. Junior Marcelo Mazzetto was in Brazil when Nickell was picked as coach, but according to his teammates, he was the best candidate to ignite a turnaround.
"A lot of the guys were in Buffalo [during the coaching search] and I remember when they announced the three candidates and all of them came to Buffalo to be interviewed. All the guys really liked [Nickell] and vouched for him to be the man in charge," Mazzetto said.
The increase in belief came early on. Nickell spent the fall semester riding the players to work harder and to build bonds. The team became a family and everyone started trusting each other. Nickell abolished the negative energy that had saturated the program for so long.
That momentum continued during the start of the spring regular season. Buffalo opened the season with a close 4-3 win over Brown, the Bulls' first win over an Ivy League team. It was a sign that a special season was on the horizon.
"After that Brown win, we started believing that this team was different and the moment was different," Mazzetto said. "It was our time to succeed."
The wins kept piling up at an unusual pace against once unbeatable teams. After falling to 4-4 on the season, the team sparked a win streak of five matches, which culminated in the team's highlight win of the season against Western Michigan. The Broncos, the four-time defending conference champion, came into the April 3rd contest with a 25-match MAC winning streak and a No. 74 national ranking.
But Buffalo pulled off the unthinkable 4-3 upset at the Ellicott Tennis Courts. It was WMU's first MAC loss since 2006 and marked Buffalo's arrival on the men's tennis scene.
In what Nickell described as a "surreal experience," Buffalo held a 3-0 game advantage before a sunny sky gave way to clouds and constant 30 mph wind gusts. With the change of weather came a WMU storm that tied the match up at three. It took a spirited comeback from freshman Vusa Hove to secure the upset and to continue the miraculous season.
"I remember we were all believing and mentioning Brown throughout the [WMU] match. We were all ready to take the chance and we had nothing to lose," Mazzetto said. "The Western Michigan win was proof the hard work was paying off."
That drive continued to produce wins. Buffalo defeated the remaining MAC teams on the schedule and completed the regular season as champions. Nickell's goal was to change the outlook, and he succeeded.
"We're in a great position. All the athletics here are in a great position because the record books haven't been written yet," Nickell said. "We can do things that athletic teams in the past haven't done, and that's the thing. [Getting] them to sit there and to know, ‘Ok, this is our chance, we can do this' – that was the biggest part of getting a team to succeed."
Buffalo's mission isn't complete yet. The MAC Tournament commences on Thursday, with Buffalo playing its first match on Friday. The Bulls are going into the match knowing that it only takes one loss to end the season and end the dream.
But regardless of the way the season ends, this year introduced the Buffalo's men's tennis program to the top of the MAC standings.
"Coming in and just being intense and showing that we can win, that was my goal," Nickell said. "And I think we can consider this season a success.