USF starts quest toward title defense

A seemingly stress-free coach Don Barr acknowledged after practice Monday that he had hoped for better results this season, even without his star player, as the Bulls prepare for their first round Big East tournament match against No. 6 seed St. John’s on Friday.

The Bulls, who finished 7-13 a year after winning the school’s first Big East title, are the No. 3 seed despite losing their last four regular season matches.

“I expected a much better season,” Barr said. “Unfortunately, we lost our No. 1 guy, but I thought we were still capable of a little better season. We competed well. We just didn’t get the job done as a team. That was kind of a disappointing thing.”

In fairness, Barr pointed toward many close losses, which may have turned in USF’s favor if they had a healthy Lucas Jovita, the expected No. 1 starter, who missed the season after undergoing rotator cuff surgery during the offseason.

“Of course we were disappointed. We lost our No. 1 (starter) and knew he could win a lot of matches for us,” said sophomore Yannick Yoshizawa, who hasn’t lost in six matches at the No. 6 singles spot this season. “He was a leader also … It took a while to get over it but we’re better for it.”

Jovita, who went 10-6 in the No. 1 singles spot and won both of his matches during the Big East tournament last season, was perhaps the missing piece for another successful season.

USF, which started the season 1-4, won four of its next six matches, but its 1-7 record in matches decided by one point took a toll.

“It was a tough season (without Lucas),” Estrada said. “We had a little bit of trouble back there. I think we handled it pretty good. All of our matches were kind of close, and I think we have a big responsibility this weekend (as defending champions). I think we all think we’re capable (of winning the championship) with or without Lucas. We’re kind of fired up to bring the championship (home) again.”

Despite their record, the Bulls may have a better chance to repeat as champions than most expect.

USF beat the tournament’s No. 2 seed, Notre Dame, 4-3 during the regular season, lost 4-3 on the road to the tournament’s No. 1 seed, Louisville, and beat No. 4 seed DePaul 5-2.

“I think we saw both teams and where their level is,” Barr said of Notre Dame and Louisville. “We know we have a shot at them just from our competition this year. If everybody steps up, we should have a good shot at them.”

Sophomore Wael Kilani, who went 6-7 in the No. 1 singles spot this season in place of Jovita, leads the Bulls. Kilani, the Big East Freshman of the Year last season, teamed up with sophomore Yannick Yoshizawa as the No. 2 doubles team. They went 11-5 in dual-match competition this spring.

Junior Jamal Adderley, who spent last season at the No. 4 spot, played five matches in the No. 1 spot and 11 at No. 2 after Jovita’s surgery and Mahmoud Hamed, who played at No. 3 last season, graduated.

“It’s quite a jump in the level in which he has to compete,” Barr said of Adderley. “They had the opportunities to step it up, and I think with the experience they’ve had at those higher positions, if we can lower them down one spot, we’re going to be a much tougher team.”

Despite adversity this season, the Bulls can still reach their ultimate goal, Estrada said.

“I think we could have done better,” he said. “The season is gone. This is going to be a new test. This is completely different.”