When the Bulls traveled to Louisville last weekend in search of their fourth Conference USA Championship, they felt disrespected and eager for revenge.
But patience and confidence ran through their veins, as they were not willing to back down to the favorites.
“It was like the movie Against All Odds,” said Bulls coach Don Barr.
The Bulls were given the No. 3 seed, despite a 16-4 record overall going into the tournament and being the only school in C-USA to beat a top 20 team, which they did twice (Auburn, South Alabama). TCU was awarded the No. 1 seed with a 10-9 overall record, but they had beaten the No. 2 seed, Tulane (16-6 going into the tournament), who had beaten the Bulls 4-2 earlier in the season.
“In the past, the teams in our conference were not as deep as this year,” Barr said. “But then you add a team like TCU that made the Final Four last year into the mix, and it makes a big difference.”
USF started its first day of competition by waking up Friday morning at 5 a.m. after earning a first-round bye. Some bye. The Bulls had to get up to eat by six in order to be on the court to practice by seven for their match at eight against the No. 6 seed UAB.
After sweeping by the Blazers 4-0, the Bulls then had to face the top-seeded Horned Frogs on Saturday.
“This is probably the deepest squad I have ever had and we needed everyone to come through,” Barr said.
The Bulls came out on fire in doubles action, with sophomore Paco Antelo and freshman Uli Kiendl leading the way with an 8-1 victory at No. 1 doubles. Team captain Jorge Escallon and junior Nadim Naser won 8-5 at No. 3 doubles to give the Bulls a 1-0 advantage.
The Bulls then won three out of the first four singles matches to finish, clinching the 4-1 victory.
“That was a big accomplishment; TCU has a Final Four behind them,” Escallon said.
Luckily, the Bulls were able to get in about 20 minutes of indoor practice after the match because they would need it for Sunday’s rematch of the 2001 Championship with Tulane.For the Bulls to beat the odds it took a total team effort.
After incredible doubles action that saw the Bulls drop two of three matches that all finished in a tiebreaker at 9-8, USF found itself trailing 1-0.
“We lost that close point at doubles,” Antelo said. “But sometimes winning the point can work against you.”
Such was the case for the Green Wave. The Bulls jumped out to first-set leads in five of the six singles matches – however, the weather wasn’t cooperating. Neither was the opposing coach as the match was forced indoors, where the Bulls had not competed all season.
“He (Tulane coach Robert Klein) kept trying to stall the match to get inside and once we got indoors he didn’t even let us warm up,” Barr said.
“He (Klein) was trying to get us out of our element,” Antelo said.
But Antelo and the rest of the Bulls proved they were right at home inside, taking four of five matches to clinch the championship.
“Paco played incredible,” Escallon said of his teammate’s 6-3, 3-6, 6-2 upset of No. 67 Victor Romero at No. 2 singles.
Senior Dan McCain completed his perfect weekend with a 6-2, 6-4 victory vs. Mattias Westerberg at No. 3 singles. Naser and Escallon were the other victors at Nos. 5 and 6 singles.
“It was sweet revenge,” Escallon said.
McCain, Naser and Escallon all defeated the same singles opponents who had beaten them earlier in the season when the Bulls lost to the Green Wave 4-2.
“It’s really turned into a rivalry with them,” sophomore Martin Wetzel said. “They are practically the same team that we had lost to twice, but we knew that we had it in us to beat them.”
With the conference title and an automatic bid in hand, the Bulls’ next goal is the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
“We all know what we are playing for: the coaches, ourselves and USF,” Wetzel said. “Now we really have got nothing to lose.”
Now ranked No. 22 in the nation (a season high), the Bulls await their regional seed, which will be announced at 5:30 p.m. on May 2.
The NCAA Tournament begins May 11 and 12 when the Bulls will be ready to face the odds once again.
Chris Lemke covers men’s tennis and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org