EVENT: NCAA Division I Men’s Tennis Championship (first round)
SCHEDULE: No. 24 USF vs. No. 33 Florida State, Saturday at 9 a.m.
WHERE: Ring Tennis Complex, Gainesville
By TOM ZEBOLD
USF Senior Writer
TAMPA, May 9, 2014 – Continuous improvement on the court has put the No. 24 USF men’s tennis team in a position to win a national championship.
The Bulls will begin their title pursuit 9 a.m. Saturday, when they take on No. 33 Florida State in the first round of the NCAA Championship at the University of Florida’s Ring Tennis Complex in Gainesville.
“They have a great team and they’re definitely one of the toughest three seeds in any region,” head coach Matt Hill said. “We know going in it’s going to be a great battle.”
FSU (18-11) won the first meeting between the programs by a 4-3 margin on March 1. USF (18-6) has gone 13-3 since traveling to Tallahassee and captured USF Athletics’ third American Athletic Conference title by handing top-seed and host Memphis a 4-3 loss on April 20.
“It was a lot of pressure off of us going into the conference tournament because we knew we had already made the NCAA tournament due to our national ranking,” Hill said.
The Bulls earned the highest ranking in program history by landing the No. 22 spot in the ITA poll after the championship victory and they’ve been a mainstay in the national spotlight despite having one of the youngest programs in the country.
USF’s roster is made up senior Federico Sabogal, junior Oliver Pramming, sophomores Roberto Cid, Everth Dzib, Ignacio Gonzalez-Muniz and Finn Meinecke, along with freshmen Sasha Gozun, Vadym Kalyuzhnyy and Paul Polarczyk.
Hill said remaining consistent throughout the season has been a big factor in the Bulls’ success.
“That’s something experienced teams learn to do and it’s something that young teams usually struggle with,” said The American’s Coach of the Year. “I knew that was going to be a big challenge for us and I was beyond impressed to see these guys were able to accomplish that.”
Team bonding was a priority for the Bulls from the start considering they had four players brand new to college tennis and a roster made up of talent from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Spain, Moldova, Ukraine, Germany, Canada, Denmark and Colombia.
“Team chemistry is that thing you hope will come together and we spent a lot of time on team bonding exercises and team building events during the year,” Hill said. “We’ve worked on it and at the same time the guys have done a great job of learning to adapt to people from different cultures. It’s not always easy to get along with someone from your culture let alone guys from all different continents in the world.”
Now a very close group of Bulls have a chance to chase after a national championship trophy, and after that Cid, the American Player of the Year, will get to compete for another national prize when he takes part in the NCAA Singles Championship starting May 21 in Athens, Ga. Ranked No. 47 in the nation, Cid has gone 21-4 in his first season of college tennis and he’s 7-4 against ranked opponents.
“It’s exciting for a first-year player to do that. It’s not that common and I bet you can count on one hand the amount of newcomers that are actually in that tournament,” Hill said. “When I’ve taken guys to that tournament the past seven years it’s always the older guys that are there. It says a lot about his game and how much he’s improved in a short period of time.”
The Bulls as a whole will face the Florida-St. John’s winner 2 p.m. Sunday if they get past the Seminoles and the third round of competition through the championship will take place in Athens starting on May 16. Hill said a key for the Bulls will be to remain focused on the task at hand and not think too much about playing in their first NCAA tournament.
“For this team it’s important to not build this up bigger than it really is. At the end of the day it’s just a match like any other match,” Hill said. “You’re playing for the title, but the focus has to be on the how – the tactics, emotional control and the toughness we bring to the court. That’s how we’ll be successful and if they focus on the how instead of the whole environment itself we’ll be just fine.”