It's easy - and fun - to talk about a team coming off a championships season. Thanks to an incredible team comeback against Binghamton spurred by what should be a legendary, never-forgotten performance from Sergio Arevalillo, UB Men's Tennis last year won the program's first MAC Championship after numerous unsuccessful trips to the final.
This season feels different - I'm not guaranteeing a MAC Final appearance for one - but UB has an incredible number of seniors and the experience that comes with, and for the second straight year will be building on a better than (I) expected fall season. They have also been selected second in the MAC Preseason Poll, so there's that.
Damien David was a multi-year stud with two All-MAC First Teams and two All-MAC Second Teams to his name and one-time MAC Player of the Year for the Bulls even if he struggled a bit last spring, finishing his career third-all time at UB in singles, doubles, and combined victories. In the spring dual season he was just 5-15 in singles and 7-13 in doubles, so as good as he was for UB, always going up against the opponent's first or second singles option, his 2014-15 production may not be difficult to replace.
Sebastian Ionescu was another stalwart for Buffalo lost to graduation. Sebi spent much of the duals season at #3 singles for UB, and as David and Pablo Alvarez struggled, frequently won key points for the Bulls later in the season. He was 8-9 in singles and winless in doubles, but also brought steady senior experience and leadership to the group.
Jonathan Hannestad did not graduate, but is no longer on the roster. By W/L record, his departure is most damaging, as he was part of UB's strong depth lower in the pecking order that time and time again made up for losses in #1-#3 singles. The tall sophomore had UB's best winning percentage in singles at 20-9, and teamed up with Arevalillo at first doubles for a 9-6 record there, even as Buffalo struggled to claim doubles points early in the spring. Long-term, Hannestad's departure makes this year's senior cliff even more stark than it already was.
Balaji Lakshmanan saw little action for the Bulls and has now transferred to Drexel. He saw action only in the fall, and only in nine singles and three doubles matches, at that.
Ethan Nittolo was a four-star recruit out of New York City this summer, and quickly established this fall that he belongs in the regular starting lineup for Buffalo. He didn't necessarily have any stand out performances, as he was a bit up and down as freshman may be, but did team up with Noah Hajdu-Andersson to win a double flight at WMU's MAC Invitational and had a few impressive wins over the fall. I'd expect him to step into #3 singles behind Pablo Alvarez and Amar Hromic.
Can Pablo Alvarez provide more wins from the top of the lineup than UB got last year?
A big part of UB's struggles - don't forget they only slipped into the MAC Tournament thanks to a senior day win over Ball State and then Ball State dropping their final match - last year was a combined 1-9 showing in MAC play from David and Alvarez at #1 and #2 singles. UB once again has solid depth from #3 - #6, but Alvarez at full-bore is First Team All-MAC, and getting that for a full season would be very nice.
How improved are Amar Hromic, Noah Hajdu-Andersson, and Akhil Mehta?
With Hannestad and Ionescu gone, everyone pops up a spot or two in the pecking order. Hromic has quietly stepped into a reliable role that I think will find him at #2 singles, but Mehta in particular will be facing better competition than last year, while Hajdu-Andersson will continue to provide critical depth. In the fall, Mehta knocked off Binghamton's Sid Hazarika, so there's promise there.
How will the doubles pairings sort out?
Last year it took a while for UB to get going in doubles, and from the trio of pairings that solidified for MAC play, Arevalillo and Mehta both need partners. Sergio and Hannestad were Buffalo's best last year, but it seems that Nittolo may have particular chemistry with Noah Hajdu-Andersson. I'd expect at least the 2014-15 Alvarez/Hromic pairing to remain together, and probably play most weekends at #1 doubles.
It's not the same February gauntlet that UB faced last year, and the Bulls will face some new faces as a result. Through January there's the usual Northeast opponents, including nationally-ranked Dartmouth tomorrow and a handful of regular Ivy League competition, as well as Bryant, Monmouth, and BC. The team slows down in February and even gets some home matches out of it before an extended, seven-match MAC schedule that is new this year.
It's worth noting that UB gets really a pretty unlucky draw here, facing Binghamton (MAC Preseason #3) and (MAC Preseason #1) Western Michigan twice and closing the season with two of three on the road. It will likely be critical that the Bulls go 2-2 in their first four in MAC play.
|1/16||at Dartmouth||11 AM|
|1/17||vs. Bryant @Dartmouth||9 AM|
|1/22||at Cornell||1 PM|
|1/24||at Brown||11 AM|
|1/30||vs. Monmouth @ Yale||TBA|
|1/30||vs. Boston College @ Yale||TBA|
|2/6||at NJIT||12 Noon|
|2/7||at Princeton||3 PM|
|2/20||vs. Cleveland St.||1 PM|
|2/26||vs. Youngstown St.||1 PM|
|3/18||vs. Binghamton||1 PM|
|3/20||vs. Western Michigan||1 PM|
|4/2||vs. Toledo||1 PM|
|4/10||vs. Western Michigan||9 AM|
|4/15||at Ball State||TBA|
|4/17||at Northern Illinois||TBA|
|4/21||vs. Binghamton||1 PM|
With the loss of former MAC Player of the Year Damien David, the Men's Tennis team will be missing some high end talent from last year. However, the team last season didn't perform to their level for much of the year and still captured the championship. Coach Nickell's group features loads of upperclass experience and returns key members from the champions. Combining the experience with a highly regarded newcomer in Ethan Nittolo the Bulls should not be counted out of the MAC Championship race and have as good a shot as any team to capture the title, provided they navigate a difficult conference schedule.