Five games into the men’s tennis spring season, the Bulls are 5-0 as they head to Columbia, S.C. to take on South Carolina on Friday followed by San Diego on Saturday.
But USF will be entering this match with something they haven’t had this season – a national ranking.
As of Tuesday, the Intercollegiate Tennis Association now ranks the Bulls No. 56 among all Division I teams. South Carolina and San Diego rank No. 31 and No. 44, respectively.
USF coach Matt Hill said the team’s chemistry has been instrumental to its success.
“Our chemistry is the best it’s ever been,” he said. “They’ve made leaps and bounds from the fall. We had guys who didn’t know or like each other, we have guys from all over the world, and they want to room together on the road. It’s little things like that that are exciting.”
Entering the spring from a fall season that strictly consists of individual tournaments, creating a team mentality among the players became increasingly important.
“We teach them in the fall what their job is off the court,” Hill said. “It’s to be behind their teammate’s court and supporting them and knowing what’s going on in the match. Some teams, a player finishes the match and they’re on the phone with their girlfriends or getting lunch.”
Team chemistry is especially important considering it’s Hill’s first spring season as a USF coach with six new players in a nine-man lineup, seven of whom are freshman or sophomores.
Two players transferred from last season to other schools while another two graduated, welcoming many open spots.
Hill’s team is a melting pot with the entire roster being made up of players from outside of the states – five from Europe, three from North America (outside the U.S.) and one from South America.
“We have a brand new team, a young team, and it’s exciting for us,” Hill said.
Apart from recruiting being a main focus of Hill’s staff in the offseason, it was clear that chemistry needed to be pushed more, so Hill got creative.
On one of the team’s first field trips, so to speak, Hill took the Bulls to Downtown Tampa’s police academy in January.
“It was a brand new simulator that they use to train their officers and we were kind of a trial run for them,” he said.
On the surface, Hill’s out-of-the-box trip may have seemed like an interesting team building exercise, but it also built up the team’s tolerance to “high-pressure situations.” – situations that can mean life or death for officers.
“There were a lot of similarities that we can draw from their training to ours,” Hill said. “Obviously with (officers) it’s life or death and for us it’s just a sport, but for some of the guys on our team, they want to be highly successful. (The police academy) has very high expectations and we have very high expectations, and we’re in high-pressure situations. So for our guys it is kind of like life or death in their world.”
Hill’s next trip with the team was a bit more laid back. Last week, the Bulls visited Riverfront Park’s ropes course for a day of team building exercises.
Their trip to the ropes course came after USF’s two wins over, what Hill considered, the team’s “first real test.”
The Bulls beat out No. 55 Texas Tech and No. 60 Miami in Miami on Feb. 8 and Feb. 9.
“The thing we’re most excited about is when we played Miami and Texas Tech, there were moments when things were pretty tight, we weren’t running away with these matches like we were at the beginning of the year, and I was super pleased with how our guys handled that,” Hill said. “They love being under pressure and when you have that perspective, good things are going to happen.”
The two wins in Miami followed three wins at home against unranked teams to open the spring season.
USF’s schedule features six straight ranked opponents and with two already marked up as wins for the Bulls, Hill and his squad hope to keep up their team mentality in South Carolina. and beyond.
“We’re not going to play this sport as an individual sport,” he said. “We want them to understand what it means to be on a team. We know that if they can grasp that concept then we’ll be better for it and achieve more in the long run.”
The Bulls play the Gamecocks on Friday at 4 p.m. and the Toreros Saturday at 1:30 p.m.