MOBILE, Ala. -- Someday, Janosch Apelt will sit down with his grandkids to tell them the story of how he stood on one leg and carried Azusa Pacific into the semifinals of the 2010 NAIA Men’s Tennis National Championship. When he gets finished with the tale, chances are his future grandkids will have just as hard a time believing it as the 100-plus crowd that witnessed it firsthand.
With his improbable 3-set win over Lucas Pereira at No. 2 singles, Apelt lifted the No. 3-seeded Cougars past their No. 6-seeded Golden State Athletic Conference rivals from Vanguard by the narrowest of margins, 5-4, capping an afternoon full of wild momentum swings with a grueling affair that sent both competitors to local medical facilities for treatment of their dehydration symptoms.
Vanguard posted narrow victories at the top 2 doubles positions to take an early 2-1 lead, moving to 3-1 with a quick singles win. That’s when Azusa Pacific answered in rapid-fire succession with straight-sets victories at No. 3, 4 and 5 to take a 4-3 lead. At the time, Apelt’s victory seemed only to be a matter of time, with a 6-4 opening-set win and a 4-0 advantage in the second set.
However, Pereira broke 4 consecutive Apelt service games to take a 6-5 lead. With the score tied at 30-all on Pereira’s serve, Apelt succumbed to the first wave of cramps, needing an injury timeout to recover and score consecutive points that forced a set tiebreaker. Pereira conceded the first point of the tiebreaker with a return into the net, but he reeled off 7 straight points to force a third set that seemed to spell certain doom for Apelt and his cramping legs.
“My pain on a scale from 1 to 10 was a 20,” Apelt said. “I thought I was going to die out there. My legs were straight and I couldn’t bend them, and I had never experienced something like that before. I wasn’t quite sure what was going on with my body.”
Before the third set began, Azusa Pacific’s only other shot at victory slipped away with a 3-set defeat at No. 6 singles, leaving the match outcome squarely on Apelt’s shoulders. He managed to hit enough winners to take the opening game of the third set and move into a lead in the second game, at which point Pereira began to experience the same grueling effects of the hot and humid Gulf Coast afternoon.
Pereira took his injury timeout early in the set to regain his strength, and Apelt collapsed once again after winning the first point out of Pereira’s injury break. The fresh wave of cramps cost him a game penalty, as he had already been attended to by athletic trainers for leg cramps, and his 2-1 lead seemed very much in danger. That’s when both players were forced to resort to the simplest possible tennis strategy – putting the ball in play. For the most part, any shot put in play that required more than a couple of steps for a return shot went uncontested by either player.
“In 16 years of coaching, I’ve never seen anything like this,” Cougar head coach Mark Bohren said. “There were certain points where I thought he was done, and I couldn’t believe we were going to lose off our guy cramping.”
Apelt began using an underhand serve for the rest of the third set to conserve as much energy as possible, and the southpaw’s skill came in handy with a variety of drop shots and baseline winners throughout the third set. With the playing field finally leveled due to the conditions, Apelt’s conservative strategy paid off as he outlasted Pereira and eventually pulled away for a 6-2 third-set win that looked nothing like competitive college tennis.
“I was just hoping I could help the team,” Apelt said. “This is the last year for our 4 seniors who have put so much into this team, and that’s what kept me going. Even though I would have loved to have an easier match, and there were spots where thought I might have to retire, seeing and hearing the support from those guys especially helped me to keep going.”
The unbelievable finish overshadowed the rest of the match, which provided plenty of drama of its own. Azusa Pacific appeared to be in control of 2 of the 3 doubles matches, quickly getting on the board with an 8- 5 win from Alex Lane and Ronald Chow at the No. 3 position. A doubles sweep seemed within reach when Apelt and senior Mathias Weber came up with a clutch service break at No. 2 doubles that helped them tie the match at 6-6. Both Apelt and Weber and Vanguard’s No. 2 team of Alessandro Ventre and Sandro Bucher held serve the rest of the way to force a set tiebreaker. Vanguard never trailed in the tiebreaker, posting a 9-8 (7-5) win that may have contributed to Apelt’s fatigue later in the afternoon.
Meanwhile, the Cougars’ top doubles tandem of Matthijs Bolsius and Jochem Hoefnagels rolled out to an early 5-2 lead before Pereira and Tino Brodar notched back-to-back service breaks while holding their own serve for a 7-5 lead. After pulling to within 7-6, Bolsius and Hoefnagels had a break point before Vanguard got to deuce, and Brodar served consecutive aces to lift Vanguard to an 8-6 win a No. 1, along with a 2-1 advantage heading into singles.
“After doubles, I told the team that we’re going to have to earn this win and leave everything out on the court,” Bohren said. “I just didn’t expect them to take me so literally.”
Bolsius was downed by Ventre at No. 1 singles, 6-1, 6-1, putting Azusa Pacific into a 3-1 deficit before Lane, Hoefnagels and Weber finished off straight-sets victories in the middle of the lineup. Chow split the opening sets at No. 6 singles but never seriously threatened in the third set, suffering a 2-6, 7-5, 7-2 defeat that evened the team scores at 4-4 with only the battle at No. 2 still in doubt.
“This was the craziest match I’ve been involved with in my life,” Bolsius said. “After I lost quickly, we made an amazing comeback and then it came down to Janosch. We thought he wouldn’t be able to continue until his opponent started cramping, and then it just came down to who wanted it more. I thought Janosch fought like a warrior, and he pulled it out for the seniors and for his team.”
The Azusa Pacific victory renews the greatest national rivalry in the modern era of NAIA men’s tennis, a semifinals matchup between the Cougars and 8-time NAIA champion Auburn Montgomery (Ala.). No programs have appeared in more national semifinals than Auburn Montgomery and Azusa Pacific, which have each reached that point in 7 of the past 8 seasons.
“We had way too good of a season for it to end like this,” Bolsius said. “At least 10 times today I thought it was over. Janosch deserves all the credit today, because he played like a champion. Tomorrow we have to play for him.”
The teams met each other in either the semifinals or finals 5 straight seasons from 2004 through 2008, with Auburn Montgomery claiming 4 NAIA titles during that span. Azusa Pacific’s 2005 national title, its only NAIA men’s tennis championship in program history, included a 5-2 semifinals win over Auburn Montgomery.
“Every round you win at the national tournament is special, so for Janosch to pull it out like this was just amazing,” Bolsius said. “Coming into this tournament, we thought we had a chance to win. We’ll see what happens tomorrow, but I still believe we can do it.”
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 20-4 on the season, while Vanguard finishes the year with a 15-8 overall record.
ABOUT THE DIRECTORS CUP: Azusa Pacific has won 5 consecutive Directors’ Cup trophies, earning recognition as the best overall athletics program in the NAIA, and the Cougars’ pursuit of an NAIA-record sixth Cup hinges on national tournament finishes by 4 Azusa Pacific spring sports programs (men’s & women’s tennis and men’s & women’s track & field).
The Directors’ Cup is a prestigious awards program administered by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA) that annually honors the best overall collegiate athletics programs in the country. Points are awarded to each school based on the postseason national tournament finish of a pre-determined number of men’s and women’s sports. The NAIA award is tabulated using a maximum of 6 men’s and 6 women’s sports. In tennis, a semifinals appearance has been worth 83 Directors’ Cup points, with an appearance in the national title match guaranteeing at least 90 points.