MOBILE, Ala. -- Azusa Pacific’s NAIA Tournament fate again came to rest on the weary legs of sophomore Janosch Apelt, but he and the rest of the Cougars put up a spirited fight on another hot and humid afternoon Friday in a 5-2 semifinal defeat to No. 2-seeded Auburn University Montgomery (Ala.) at the Mobile Tennis Center.
The semifinals match had a distinctly familiar feel, pitting 8-time NAIA champion Auburn Montgomery against a resurgent old nemesis in Azusa Pacific, which won the 2005 NAIA title and finished runner-up to the Senators 3 other times in a 4-year stretch from 2004 through 2007. No other NAIA programs have made more national semifinals appearances than Azusa Pacific and Auburn Montgomery in the 11-year history of the team championship format used by the NAIA since 2000.
Whatever energy Apelt and his teammates lacked following yesterday’s grueling 5-4 quarterfinal win over Vanguard didn’t diminish their willingness to battle past the tough bounces and disappointments that seemingly appeared around every corner. Apelt again provided the most visible example, fighting back from a 5-2 second-set deficit to force a second-set tiebreaker in which he rallied to tie at 5-all after surrendering the first 5 points.
Apelt’s comeback allowed sophomore Alex Lane to complete his own comeback, rallying from an opening-set loss for consecutive 6-1 sets for a 3-set win at the No. 3 position. The victory gave Lane a perfect 3-0 national-tournament singles record, as he posted straight-set wins in Cougar victories over Shorter (Ga.) in the second round and Vanguard in the quarterfinals.
In all, Azusa Pacific dropped 5 of 6 opening sets in singles play after Auburn Montgomery had taken 2 of the 3 doubles matches. Senior Matthijs Bolsius suffered a 6-0, 6-1 defeat at No. 1, and senior Danny Colten’s 6-3, 6-1 defeat at No. 6 in the first national-tournament match of his 4-year career left the Cougars facing a 4-1 deficit.
However, senior Mathias Weber’s opening-set tiebreaker win seemed to elevate the play of the Cougars in the middle 4 courts. Lane and freshmanJochem Hoefnagels rallied from opening-set losses for second-set wins, and Apelt, who dropped a narrow 7-5 first set, slowly dug out from a 4-1 second-set deficit. A key service break late in the set allowed Apelt to draw even at 5-5 in the set, and each player held serve to force the second-set tiebreaker, allowing Lane enough time to finish off his singles win that gave the Cougars their second team point of the match.
Apelt’s No. 2 singles opponent Michael Johnson served a pair of aces en route to a 5-0 lead in the tiebreaker, but Apelt came back with an ace that sparked a 5-point run that tied the set once more. However, Apelt’s double-fault gave Johnson match point, and he capitalized by moving Apelt back and forth across the baseline before hitting a forehand winner that clinched the match and eliminated Azusa Pacific from the national tournament.
Weber dropped the second set by a 6-2 margin and was tied at 2-2 in the third set when the match ended. Hoefnagels trailed in his third set, 5-1, after splitting his first 2 sets at No. 4 singles.
In doubles, Bolsius and Hoefnagels started with a service break and then held serve to take a 2-0 lead, but Auburn Montgomery’s top tandem of Johnson and Saad Benkirane responded with 2 breaks of their own while winning 5 consecutive games. The rest of the match held serve, as Auburn Montgomery posted the first doubles point with an 8-5 win at the No. 1 spot.
The Cougars led through most of the No. 3 doubles set, but Lane and senior Ronald Chow’s 5-4 lead evaporated in 4 straight games, giving Auburn Montgomery another 8-5 doubles win and a potential doubles sweep. The sweep seemed likely, given the Senators’ commanding 6-3 lead at the No. 2 position, but Apelt and Weber won 6 of the final 7 games for a 9-7 win that kept Azusa Pacific alive in the match. They picked up 2 service breaks during their final doubles push and blanked the Senators in the final game with Weber serving for the match.
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. Azusa Pacific’s men’s tennis semifinals appearance will likely result in 83 Directors’ Cup points.