AZUSA, Calif. -- Last season, Azusa Pacific junior Janosch Apelt and Vanguard junior Lucas Pereira battled severe cramps and each other in a career-defining national tournament match, and the 2 played to 3 sets for the fourth straight meeting Friday afternoon as the NAIA’s No. 4-ranked Cougars won 5 straight points to clinch the team victory before settling for a 7-2 win over the No. 12-ranked Lions.
Although their 3-set battle at No. 1 singles may have lacked the drama of Apelt’s one-legged victory that lifted Azusa Pacific to last year’s NAIA quarterfinals win, Pereira’s 6-4, 4-6, 7-5 victory certainly added another chapter to what is developing into one of the NAIA’s best individual rivalries. In 5 meetings over the past 2 seasons, they have needed 3 sets in 4 of the matchups, and Pereira’s win Friday was his second in the individual rivalry.
“They just seem to bring out the best in each other,” Cougar head coach Mark Bohren said. “They are very evenly matched and just play good solid tennis.”
The Cougars jumped out to a 3-0 lead, repeating the same doubles sweep that sparked Azusa Pacific to an 8-1 win in the year’s first meeting with Vanguard Feb. 26. The No. 1 doubles provided no respite to the Apelt/Pereira rivalry, with Apelt and first-time doubles partner Ben Eger rallying from a 6-5 deficit for a narrow 9-7 win over a Vanguard tandem that featured Pereira with Alexandre Piccin to complete the doubles sweep.
“Obviously, doubles was a key for us as we wrapped up a tough week,” Bohren said. “We played the top-ranked teams in the NAIA and NCAA Div. III this week, and Vanguard is a team that always gives us a battle. There was definitely some pressure we put on ourselves to perform, and the guys did a great job today.”
Five of the 6 singles matches went to 3 sets, and the only match decided in straight sets, a 6-3, 6-4 win for junior Ilja Ikonnikov at the No. 4 position, lasted until late in the third set of the Apelt/Pereira matchup at No. 1. Eger was the first to finish, coming back to win consecutive sets by a combined 12-4 margin at No. 2 singles after a 7-5 opening-set defeat to Vanguard’s Yahor Kryvaruchka. Ikonnikov’s victory clinched the match victory for Azusa Pacific before Pereira held off Apelt in the third set to give Vanguard its first point of the afternoon.
Junior Whitman Hough won a third-set tiebreaker for a 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (7-2) victory, extending the Cougars’ lead to 6-1, and freshman Frederik Wilkens ran away with the No. 5 singles third-set super tiebreaker for a 6-2, 2-6, 10-4 win over Piccin to give Azusa Pacific a 7-1 advantage.
The match, which started nearly an hour late due to a delay in Vanguard’s arrival to the courts, was pushing 5 hours in length with the sun setting and darkness soon to follow. Vangaurd’s Radek Rosiak, who won a 7-5 opening set over sophomore Alex Dickson at No. 6 singles, opted to forfeit the remaining games of the second set to Dickson, who led 3-0 in the set at the time. That brought the match to the 10-point super tiebreaker, a 10-8 Rosiak win that brought the 5-hour, 3-minute match to a merciful conclusion.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 13-4 overall, 8-2 GSAC, while Vanguard is now 5-11 overall and 3-7 in conference play. The Cougars’ challenging GSAC slate continues on Monday, Feb. 4, when the NAIA’s No. 9-ranked Concordia visits the Munson & Bavougian Tennis Complex for a 1:30 p.m. clash.