MOBILE, Ala.-- With the Cougars’ match against an all-too familiar, and equally troublesome, opponent tied at 4-4, all eyes at the Mobile Tennis Center shifted to Ben Eger. The sophomore didn’t disappoint, delivering a clutch two-set win at No. 4 over 5th ranked Auburn Montgomery (Ala.), moving 4th ranked Azusa Pacific into the semifinals.
The Cougars (21-2) took a 2-1 lead after doubles, but when their two most consistent players, Janosch Apelt and Jochem Hoefnagels suffered rare losses, Azusa Pacific turned to Eger in need of a win to extend the season for at least another day. And even with the added crowd gathering to watch game-deciding match, Eger excelled, almost inspired by importance of the moment.
After falling behind a break, and then evening it up at 4-4 in the second set the sophomore from Germany overcame two game-points to break Marlu Jansen Van Vuuren, earning the right to serve for the match. Eger then rose to the occasion, holding serve and clinching the victory just before his teammates ran out and met him at center court.
“It’s amazing. Those are the moments you live for as an athlete. You play for the team so you’re not alone out there. There was a lot on the line, but you enjoy it as an athlete. I was just so happy,” said Eger. “I wanted to fall down...a lot of weight came off my body. It was time to clinch a big one and I was so happy to do that.”
Making the victory especially sweet, aside from it being another milestone in Bohren’s storied career, is that it came against a program that has been the biggest thorn in the Cougars’ side. From 2004 to 2007 Azusa Pacific fell in the title match to the Warhawks three times, and were again bounced by Auburn Montgomery in the 2010 semifinals.
“It was really exciting the way the whole thing played out. We’ve had heartbreaking losses multiple times against them. There were a lot of emotions; we went up and down a little bit. I told Ben before the match started that he was going to play big today. He’s such a clutch player that I felt comfortable for him,” said Bohren.
Azusa Pacific jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead in doubles as Eger and Ilja Ikonnikov stormed through Matias Dasso and Van Vuuren at No. 3 with an 8-1 win. Then at No. 1 Apelt and Hoefnagels continued to make their claim as the NAIA’s top-team, rifling past Bence Toth and Josh Reason with an 8-3 result. At No. 2 Gary Yam and Frederik Wilkens battled, and nearly gave Azusa Pacific a clean doubles sweep, but dropped the final three games of the match after leading 7-6, falling 9-7 to Nicolas Pinones-Haltenhoff and Zinelabadine Jouini.
In singles 18th ranked (NAIA/ITA) Hoefnagels had an unusually off-day, losing his first match of the year in a 6-4, 6-1 setback against 16th ranked Toth. The loss broke a 24-match streak for the junior dating back to last season, and knotted the contest at 2-2. Then on court six Yam, who is typically the last player to finish, had a shockingly fast victory, registering a 6-3, 6-2 win over Jouini to give Azusa Pacific back the lead.
Auburn Montgomery (17-8) equalized the score again, this time breaking Apelt’s nine-match winning streak as 7th ranked Pinones-Haltenhoff recorded a 6-4, 6-3 decision at No. 1. Then at 3-singles 34th ranked Wilkens had a decisive 6-2, 6-4 win to again put the Cougars back on top at 4-3. But the Warhawks struck back as Jouini handed Ikonnikov a 6-3, 6-2 loss, tying the match for the third time of the day.
In the deciding contest Eger took a one-set lead, getting past Van Vuuren 7-5 with the importance of the match not yet realized. But by the time the two finished their first two games in the second set all of the other matches were finished, with players from both sides cheering on, hoping to play another day. After trading the first six points Eger broke Van Vuuren to take the momentum and post a 7-5, 6-4 win giving the Cougars their third match with top-ranked Fresno Pacific in the semifinals.
Azusa Pacific, which has one NAIA national championship in its history, will face off with the Sunbirds at 1:00 p.m. (CDT) tomorrow, with the winner earning a spot in Saturday’s championship match.