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USF playing to stay on top

The USF men’s tennis team has high expectations and lofty goals as it starts the season No. 21 in the national rankings.

The Bulls’ main goal is to win the Conference USA Tournament, which will guarantee them a spot in the NCAA Tournament. If the Bulls make it to the tournament, it will be for the third consecutive year, a school record.

Coach Don Barr and his team are coming off an outstanding year, falling one match short of the Sweet 16.

The last match was lost by sophomore Martin Wetzel, who went undefeated in the regular season. Wetzel cramped shortly into the match and was barely able to finish due to intense pain.

That loss stopped the Bulls from advancing to the next tier of the tournament and left them with a strong desire to put themselves back in that position.

“They definitely want to relive that and get into the Sweet 16,” Barr said.

The Bulls will have to play without Wetzel, after he went back to Germany following last season. He is, however, coming back in February to talk to Barr. The absence of Wetzel has not worried Barr, who has great faith in his incoming players.

“The talent that I brought in is as good or better than Martin,” Barr said.

That talent comes in the form of five new players who joined the team in the fall and have already earned Barr’s confidence. The level of confidence is so high that Barr has no idea who is going to be playing in the top six.

“Everyone should be a starter,” Barr said.

All players will be rotated until they start to define themselves and a clear six emerge. Last year, players were substituted for illness or injury, but Barr said this year he would sub for slight illness or injury due to his conviction in the players.

Not only are the Bulls finding talent among the new recruits, but also the returning players are expected to improve and lead. Junior Paco Antelo, ranked No. 53 nationally, will play at the No. 1 position this year. Antelo went 3-5 at No. 1 and 7-0 at No. 2 last season. Sophomore Uli Kiendl is also predicted to be a key player this year. Kiendl went 10-2 in the No. 4 hole last year.

Heading up all of these improvements are the two returning seniors, Jorge Escallon and Nadim Naser. Being the veterans of a young squad, Escallon and Naser are expected to be team leaders and a unifying force. Barr believes it is important to have this presence on his team.

“They do things on and off the court to put the team together as one solid unit,” said Barr.

The month of January is packed for the Bulls, who start the season at home on Saturday against Bethune-Cookman, then travel to Mississippi Monday to take on the Rebels. Topping it all off, USF must travel to Gainesville at the end of the month to take on the No. 5 Gators.