One look at University at Buffalo men’s tennis coach Lee Nickell shows that the 2017 season was a pleasant surprise.
Nickell is sporting a blue Mohawk haircut, the result of a bet he made with his players. If they went unbeaten – 9-0 – on the way to the Mid-American Conference championship, he would get the radical 'do. Nickell was not scouting out prospective barbers when the season began.
“My expectations were very, very low, I have to say,” Nickell said. “That’s why I’m sporting the blue Mohawk, because I told these guys I didn’t have high expectations. Here we are. I have a blue Mohawk.”
UB’s men qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years despite the fact three of its top four singles players are freshmen. The 38-year-old Nickell has the program rolling along in his eighth season as coach. UB has made the MAC title match five of those seasons and has posted a winning record seven of his eight years at the helm.
UB’s women also have a good thing going. The team has had only three losing seasons in the last 13 years and also claimed the MAC championship.
UB’s men meet 13th-ranked Texas A&M in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at 4 p.m. Friday in College Station, Texas.
UB’s women meet No. 2-ranked Ohio State in the NCAA first round at noon Saturday in Columbus, Ohio.
Nickell’s success at UB is no surprise to UB tennis great Todd Miller, the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Famer. Miller was on the search committee when Nickell was hired from Fresno State, where he worked under Williamsville native Jay Udwadia, now the head coach at Oklahoma State.
“We knew we were getting a great coach,” said Miller, whose son Tony is a UB senior. “Buffalo is so lucky to have him. He eats, sleeps and breathes tennis. I see what he’s done with my son, and his development of players is amazing. And he’s a great recruiter.”
Nickell’s freshman recruiting coups this year were Malaysian Hao Sheng Koay (20-11 overall and 7-7 at first singles), Serbian Filip Grbic (13-15 and 13-3 at third singles), and Sweden’s Villhelm Fridell (21-8 and 11-3 at fourth singles).
Grbic was the No. 1-rated 16-year-old in Europe and was among the top 100 in the world in juniors. He scored ATP points.
“Then his parents couldn’t afford for him to play anymore,” Nickell said. “So for the last year he worked on the farm. We brought him over. He is country strong. Like the guy can put me on his back. But he hadn’t touched a tennis racket in a long time. So he struggled when he first got here.”
“He’s a top-100 ATP level talent,” Nickell said. “I’ve had two guys I’ve worked with who are top 100 in the world in singles, and he’s better. He hits the ball unbelievable.”
Koay, the first Malaysian the UB coach has recruited, made the initial contact with Nickell.
“My view was I thought he’d come in and play 6 for us,” Nickell said. “Hao came in, and the moment we saw him hit we said, OK this guy’s good. He’s put together right. . . . He has every kind of game style you want.”
UB also was bolstered by junior Vidit Vaghela, a native of India who transferred from Monmouth. He went 17-13.
UB’s MAC title match win over Western Michigan came after the Bulls fell behind, 3-1, with three matches to go. Fridell and Grbic scored comeback singles wins, then sophomore Ethan Nittolo scored a third-set tie-breaker victory at sixth singles to cap the comeback.
“That was the most epic comeback I’ve ever seen in a tennis match,” said Tony Miller, who teams with Notolo in doubles. “I guess it’d be similar to being down 30 points in a basketball game and coming back. Our guys are just resilient.”
The title run by the UB women not a surprise. UB was top-ranked in 2016 but was upset by Ball State in the semifinals. The Bulls returned most of their key performers.
“Last year we lost a heart-breaker against Ball State in the semis,” said Chantal Martinez Blanco, the No. 2 singles player. “We worked our entire year every single day thinking we want to win the MAC. When we got there in our first match against Western Michigan, you could see the fire that we wanted it more than anybody. That was the key, our passion.”
It wasn’t an uneventful march to the title, however. Fifth-year head coach Kristen Maines gave birth to a baby girl, Stella, in mid-January.
“I’ve been doing this a long time, and this is a season like none other,” Maines said. “Obviously, having a baby in season made things interesting, and without my assistant, Smaranda Stan, none of this would have been possible. She kept us on track. Without the discipline and work ethic of our whole team, especially our seniors and their leadership, we wouldn’t be here.”
Tanja Stojanovska, a junior from Macedonia, made first-team all-MAC for a third straight year after going 19-12. Martinez Blanco, a sophomore from Puerto Rico, made second-team all-MAC after going 20-11. Emel Abibula, a freshman from Romania, went 25-7 at third singles. Stojanovska and senior Margarita Kotok went 26-6 at first doubles.