Bulls win Big East on home court

Senior Mahmoud Hamed ran to freshman Mark Oljaca and embraced him, lifting him in the air on the USF Varsity Tennis Courts.

Moments later, the South Florida men’s tennis team raised a “Big East Champion” sign for the first time in program history.

In its third year in the Big East, the No. 3 seed South Florida men’s tennis team won the school’s third Big East postseason championship with a 4-0 victory over No. 5 seed DePaul on Sunday.

“It’s the best feeling,” Hamed said. “I cannot ask anything more from my teammates. It’s the best thing they can give me. We worked very hard for it … we have closed the season very well.”

For USF coach Don Barr, it was the sixth conference championship in his 18 years at USF. Barr has won four Conference USA titles and one Metro Conference Championship.

After the team lost the last two matches in the regular season, Barr said, “we knew that we really had to step it up. They worked extra hard and it paid off. It shows you hard work will pay off for sure.”

Junior Thomas Estrada, sophomore Lucas Jovita and freshman Romain Deridder clinched the title with their singles victories. Jovita, in the Bulls’ No. 1 position, defeated DePaul’s Austin Doerner 6-1 and 6-4.

“It was amazing,” Jovita said. “I worked hard the whole season. I’ve been looking forward to it. I’ve struggled a little bit with injuries and it was harder for me. I played great tennis this whole week, fighting hard all the time.”

Jovita injured both wrists mid-season, but the No. 90 singles player in the nation finished with a 23-10 regular-season record and reached as high as No. 27 in the nation this season.

Estrada joined the Bulls’ lineup this weekend after missing the last three regular-season matches because of a wrist injury. He won both singles matches this weekend.

“There was pressure on me, but at the same time I was so excited to be in the Big East,” Estrada said. “I was dreaming of this time the whole year since I got here. I (told the coaches), ‘I don’t care if my wrist is hurting. I’m going to go there and get the point for our team.'”

Jovita and Estrada — the No. 40 doubles team in the nation — had a 2-1 doubles record this weekend.

DePaul, the No. 5 seed, defeated No. 1 Louisville on Saturday in the semifinals. Last year, the Bulls placed second after a loss to Notre Dame, which the Bulls defeated on Saturday.

“That’s one thing I reminded the kids before we started the match (Sunday),” Barr said. “(I said), ‘Remember when they started handing out trophies last year … you want to stand on the sideline, or you want to get something?’ They all came out and put it all on the table.”

The Bulls tied Notre Dame 3-3 when sophomore Jamal Adderley clinched a 4-3 match victory with a 6-4 singles tie-breaking win.

“I played my best tennis at the end,” Adderley said. “That’s when they needed me. It was just great. It’s a great feeling.”

Freshmen Wael Kilani and Yannick Yoshizawa clinched the doubles point with an 8-4 victory. Kilani and Yoshizawa captured another doubles point with an 8-4 victory in Friday’s defeat of St. John’s.

USF struggled midseason to find consistent doubles players, especially in the No. 3 position, but Kilani and Yoshizawa earned the spots and have won their last six matches.

“Wael and I are just getting closer every single match,” Yoshizawa said. “We are getting more comfortable with each other and can talk more on the court.”

The Bulls have their sights set on the NCAA tournament now. Barr said they should find out about NCAA qualifications this week.

“I’m anxious to see where they’re gong to send us,” Barr said. “I don’t know if it’s Gainesville or if we’ll go somewhere else.”

USF assistant coach Mike Henderson has coached with Barr for 16 years and got to share the excitement of winning the team’s first Big East title. USF also has Big East championship wins in women’s tennis and men’s soccer.

“It feels good,” he said. “It felt good in the Conference USA. It’s been a few years, but you don’t forget the feeling.”