Normally, going into Oxford, Miss., to face the No. 5 team in the nation would scare a team from Conference USA.
“If everybody gives it all, we have the potential to beat any team in the nation,” sophomore Martin Wetzel said.
Ranked No. 34 in the nation, USF looks to impress the Intercollegiate Tennis Association and the NCAA committee as it travels to take on Ole Miss (15-4) at 2 p.m today.
The Bulls (13-3) have gone 1-2 against Southeastern Conference opponents this season, losing to Florida and LSU, but their victory vs. No. 17 Auburn gives the team confidence.
“The Auburn match gives us the confidence we need,” USF coach Don Barr said. “We know we are right there with the SEC.”
Playing tough competition is what the team is craving. After a two-week layoff, the Bulls defeated No. 40 Miami on Saturday without Wetzel. Unfortunately, without Wetzel, who was still questionable with a tender left quadriceps, the Bulls will be facing a different beast in the Rebels, a team that features three ranked singles players.
“I want to do what is best for the team,” Wetzel said. “If Coach thinks it is best for us, then I will rest.”
The Rebels’ Alex Hartman is ranked No. 17; Kristofer Stahlberg is No. 52; and Martin Selin is at No. 113 in the nation. Stahlberg and Selin are also at No. 34 in the doubles rankings.
“We’ve got four guys that could play at No. 1 in singles,” said Bulls senior Dan McCain. “So I think we’ve got a great shot at these guys because we are solid up and down our lineup.”
If Wetzel rests, the Bulls’ only other ranked player is Paco Antelo at No. 109. However, McCain did sneak into the rankings a few weeks ago (No. 145), and team captain Jorge Escallon did make it as high as No. 110.
“We are a lot more consistent this year than last year when we faced them,” Escallon said. “Despite losing 6-1, there were four three-setters in singles play.”
This year’s team has not lost consecutive matches and has avenged losses to both Miami and South Alabama from last season.
Consistency, coaching and motivation have brought the Bulls up a level from last year.
“Our assistants help incorporate motivation,” Escallon said. “And this allows Coach (Barr) to bring out a fun atmosphere. We all wanted to play soccer at practice on Monday to keep it loose, so he worked it in for us.”
Barr gave the praise to his assistant, Mike Henderson.
“Coach Henderson has devoted a lot of hours over the eight seasons he has been here,” Barr said. “I can’t say enough about Mike. He is first class all the way.”
Finishing atop the conference is the Bulls’ No. 1 goal. Right now, Conference USA’s highest ranked team is TCU at No. 25, with Tulane right behind at No. 26. A victory over the Rebels could push the Bulls ahead of both teams and possibly into the top 20.”We want to make our conference look good, so when we win it, it will be even more special,” said Escallon. “Right now, we are taking it one match at a time so we can’t think about being scared to get in position to beat these guys.”
After Ole Miss, the Bulls will return home for their final regular season match Saturday at noon against Jacksonville on Senior Day.
Chris Lemke covers men’s tennis and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org