When Oliver Pramming first set foot on the USF tennis courts as a freshman in the fall of 2011, the program was in much different shape than it is now.
With coaching changes and an infusion of talented players over the past four years, the Bulls have gone from regularly missing the NCAA Championships to now preparing for their first-ever Sweet 16 match tonight.
“It’s a really different team,” Pramming said. “Not one guy that’s here now apart from me was here back then. Of course it was a little different, I was a younger guy and the team was older. A lot of Latin guys were there so it was kind of different coming from Europe.”
Pramming said the Bulls’ success can be attributed to coach Matt Hill, who took over after the 2011-12 season.
“It’s grown dramatically,” Pramming said. “After coach Hill came in, he recruited a lot of new guys who came in with a lot of hunger. It’s been a great experience, especially with me being a senior, seeing everyone do well.”
While success has followed Hill’s arrival at USF, he said the Bulls couldn’t have made it this far in the season without the leadership of Pramming, the lone senior on the team.
“He’s handled (being the only senior) like a champion,” Hill said. “He clinched the conference championship last year and this year. Mentally, he’s been one of the strongest guys on the team in the second half of the season and that’s great for the rest of the team to see how he responds on the court as you expect a senior to do.”
Pramming, who is 9-4 in singles play this season, has grown to not only be a leader and role model for the younger players, but also one of the top players on the team.
“It’s been an incredible growth over the past three years for him really,” Hill said. “He’s probably, in the 10 years I’ve been coaching, the most improved player I’ver ever coached. He’s turning some weaknesses into weapons and it’s really great to see.”
With the hiring of Hill and Pramming’s development, USF is reaching new heights.
After winning no conference championships and making only two appearances in the NCAA Championships in the seven seasons before Hill arrived, USF has won the AAC championship in back-to-back seasons and is currently in its second-consecutive run in the NCAA Championships.
“The recruiting is different, the culture is different,” Hill said. “The guys coming out now are trying to play professional tennis. And the little stuff like nutrition, sleep patterns and recovery habits. Some of the things that the top teams do.”
The players Hill has brought in are already attracting attention at the national level. Junior Roberto Cid is ranked as the No. 21 singles player in the NCAA by the International Tennis Association (ITA).
Also, Pramming and freshman Justin Roberts are ranked as the No. 28 doubles team in the nation.
But even with USF’s ascension into the top-25 teams in the nation, the team lost two matches at the tail-end of the season that prompted Hill to hold a team meeting.
“I said ‘Look, our goals are to win a national championship and be in Waco at the end of the year,” Hill said. “And if you look at our results right now, we’ve played multiple top-10 teams and lost to all of them. Something has to change. You guys aren’t pushing yourselves hard enough in training to get over the hump of beating these teams and until you start training like you compete in matches, it’ll be tough.’”
Hill said the players accepted the challenge of ramping up the intensity and the results are starting to show.
“After we got back from TCU, things changed,” Hill said. “The training was much more intense, the coaches were much more intense. The players wanted it more. They didn’t mind us really getting on them in a critical way. We pushed them every day to the max and they accepted that and wanted that and that was our turning point that allowed us to reach the Sweet 16, playing with the best teams in the nation.”
Pramming said the team’s improved focus was evident on the practice courts.
“Everyone was dialed in,” Pramming said. “When we walked through the gates to the court, everybody was ready to work. So instead of maybe having longer practices, we were just more focused.”
Nearly four years after first coming to USF under former coach Don Barr, Pramming is playing each match like it’s his last, as it very well may be.
Standing in the way of Pramming and No. 18 USF (21-6) advancing to the Elite Eight is No. 2 Baylor.
The two teams will match up tonight at 8 in Waco, Texas, but despite the Bears holding a 23-5 record, Pramming said the Bulls aren’t nervous.
“Obviously they’ve had a good year and have been ranked very highly, but we know that,” he said. “At this point in the season, a ranking is just a number. We’re playing very well at the moment and we’re very confident we can play with anyone.”