MOBILE, Ala. -- Azusa Pacific didn’t get the start it was hoping for against higher-seeded Oklahoma Christian, but the No. 5-seeded Cougars put up a spirited fight anyway and took Thursday’s quarterfinal match with the No. 4-seeded Eagles down to the wire in a 5-3 defeat.
Each of the last 2 matches to finish were in the third set after Azusa Pacific had rallied from opening-set losses, and freshman Frederik Wilkens was methodically working his way towards a 3-set win at No. 5 singles. He led the third set, 5-3, and was going to serve the next game for the match when junior Whitman Hough’s No. 4 singles comeback bid was thwarted in the third set to end the match.
The Cougars claimed the first doubles point when freshman Ben Eger and Wilkens raced to an 8-2 No. 3 doubles victory, but Oklahoma Christian won the top 2 doubles matches to take a 2-1 lead into singles play.
Eger hit a backhand winner that forced an opening-set tiebreaker at No. 3 singles, but the Eagles’ Bruno Tiberti, ranked No. 9 in the latest ITA-NAIA national singles rankings, reeled off 6 straight points to start the 7-point tiebreaker and claimed the 7-3 win in the tiebreak. Tiberti channeled that momentum into the second set, posting a 6-1 victory that gave Oklahoma Christian a 3-1 lead.
At No. 6 singles, junior Ilja Ikonnikov dropped his opening set, 6-1, but he had a set-point opportunity to force a third set. However, Esteban Flores battled back and eventually put the match away in straight sets with a 7-5 second set that put Azusa Pacific into a 4-1 deficit.
The top of the Cougars’ singles lineup answered to keep the season alive. Sophomore Jochem Hoefnagels tallied a 3-set win, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, at No. 2 singles, and his win was quickly followed by a straight-set win from junior Janosch Apelt in the top singles position. Apelt’s second set went to a tiebreaker, where he broke serves twice for points in the set while holding for all 5 of his service points in the 7-3 tiebreak. Apelt’s 6-2, 7-6 win pulled Azusa Pacific to within 4-3 with 2 singles matches left, and Hough and Wilkens each bounced back from opening-set losses for 7-5 second-set wins that pinned the match outcome on their third sets.
With the loss, Azusa Pacific’s season ends with a 16-7 overall record after the Cougars made their 12th consecutive national quarterfinals appearance. Oklahoma Christian improves to 23-1 overall and moves on to face top-seeded Fresno Pacific in Friday’s semifinals.