UB men's tennis to play Ohio State in first NCAA Tournament appearance

Jason Shkodnik, a former Buffalo player and current assistant coach of the men’s tennis team, said he came back to coach the Bulls because he wanted to make history.

Last year, Shkodnik sat stoic and silent as a senior on the bus ride home after losing to Ball State in the Mid-American Conference Championship match, 4-3, in what players called “heartbreaking” fashion. This season, Shkodnik and the team he was now coaching were ready to take home the program’s first-ever MAC Title.

And that’s exactly what they did.

On Tuesday, the Bulls (12-10, 2-3 MAC) found out they will play the No. 12 team in the country, Ohio State (25-8, 10-1 Big Ten), May 8 in Columbus, Ohio in the NCAA Tournament in their first-ever national tournament appearance. The winner of the match will advance to take on the winner of Vanderbilt and Notre Dame in the next round.

“In six years that I’ve been here, we’ve had this opportunity four times,” said head coach Lee Nickell. “And on the fourth time we got it. But in terms of validation, it’s more in terms of how happy I am to see these guys experience this after such heartbreak the last few years.”

This is the third MAC Championship for UB Athletics this season. Athletic Director Danny White called the feat “a positive step” for the program and UB Athletics.

“We’ve been working hard on building a championship culture,” White said. “In 15 years in the MAC to have one NCAA bid and this year to have three in one year, we feel it’s a really positive step. We’re getting a lot more competitive and it’s happening really quickly.”

White also praised Nickell, who led the team to the MAC Championship four times in his six-year tenure.

“Nickell is a talented guy,” White said. “What he’s done with this program is unbelievable.”

Unlike the men’s basketball basketball and women’s soccer teams that won MAC Championships as top teams in the conference, the tennis team needed to rely on upsets to take the title.

The Bulls went into the MAC Tournament as underdogs, but Shkodnik said the team refused to travel to the tournament “to come back without a trophy.” They were determined to have a different vibe on the ride home to Buffalo than in previous years.

Buffalo clinched a spot in the tournament after a 4-2 comeback victory over Binghamton (8-16, 3-2 MAC) Saturday. The Bulls entered the tournament as the No. 4 seed after edging out Ball State (12-11, 2-3 MAC) for the final spot in the conference tournament. Buffalo defeated Western Michigan (18-5, 4-1 MAC), the No. 1 seed, Friday in the semifinals.

The nod to the NCAA Tournament also gives the team an opportunity to gain national exposure. Last season, Buffalo tennis was ranked top-50 nationally for the majority of the season, but missed the NCAA Tournament. The national exposure will help the program “tremendously” and will help recruiting a “pipeline of American players,” according to Nickell.

Sophomore Jonathan Hannestad was a freshman during last season’s championship match and lost 8-2 in a doubles match. This season, Hannestad won a singles match 7-5, 6-4 and won a doubles match with junior Sebastian Arevalillo en route to a tournament bid.

Hannestad said he would have liked to go somewhere warm like California, but he wants to make the most out of the experience in Ohio.

“It’s going to be a huge experience,” Hannestad said. “We’re going in as underdogs and hopefully we’ll be able to upset them … But just having a chance to be a part of this, representing the program and showing them what we’re made of is going to be a huge experience. We’ll just pray for the best.”

The Buckeyes finished the year ranked No. 12 nationally and were named the No. 11 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The top-16 teams were awarded with home-court advantage for the first two rounds. Nickell said Ohio State is usually a top-5 program and possess some of the best players in the country.

“You never know what can happen,” Nickell said.

Shkodnik thinks Buffalo is ready to pull the upset.

“[Ohio State is] coached really well. They have the best players in the country,” Shkodnik said. “But I think we’re going to be ready for them. I know we’re going to be ready for them. The pressure is on them.”

The time of the first-round matchup has yet to be determined.

Jordan Grossman is the senior sports editor. He can be reached at jordan.grossman@ubspectrum.com