MOBILE, Ala.-- Sometimes the difference between a few inches can make all the difference, especially in the NAIA semifinals between a pair of conference rivals that played tighter and tighter matches as the season progressed. In the tiebreaking game at No. 1 doubles between Fresno Pacific and Azusa Pacific an apparent winner from Janosch Apelt was ruled out, with every Cougar fan claiming it hit the line, while the Fresno faithful swore up and down it was out by a mile. The call wasn’t overturned and the Sunbirds (25-1) grabbed a 2-0 lead, taking whatever momentum the Cougars had gained throughout the match, before posting a 9-8 (7-2) victory that put the reigning NAIA champions up 2-1 after doubles.
The win would prove to be crucial, as Ilja Ikonnikov was well on his way to a win at No. 5 singles, while Jochem Hoefnagels was in the midst of a comeback at No. 2 as Fresno Pacific clinched a 5-2 victory that was anything but a blowout. The 4th ranked Cougars (21-3), which fell to the top-ranked Sunbirds for the third time this season, got their lone singles point from yesterday’s hero Ben Eger, while getting their other point in a 9-7 win from Ikonnikov and Eger at No. 3 doubles.
Fresno Pacific, which will face Oklahoma Christian in a bid for the program’s second straight title in Saturday’s championship match, won the first match of the day at No. 2 doubles, and after the score was tied 1-1 rattled off three straight points to take a commanding 4-1 lead.
Following Eger’s 6-3, 7-5 defeat of 48th ranked Nathan Matinet the Sunbirds clinched the win when 24th ranked Cledson Carvalho beat 34th ranked Frederik Wilkens 6-3, 6-4 at No. 3. In a showdown between a pair of top-5 players 3rd ranked Xavier Smith win the season rubber match over 4th ranked Jaosch Apelt. After Apelt jumped out to a quick 3-0 lead Smith won 12 of the next 14 games, to post a 6-4, 6-1 victory in the duo’s third meeting this year. Apelt, who will go down as one of the best players in program history, ends his storied career with 60 wins, all at No. 1 or No. 2, in four seasons with the Cougars.
At No. 6 Lloyd Bruce-Burgess registered a fastwin over Gary Yam, defeating the freshman 6-2, 6-1. 18th ranked Hoefnagels, who suffered his first loss of the year yesterday, looked to be on his way for his second straight after dropping the first set against 20th ranked Kirill Sinitsyn 3-6. But the junior, who was named 2013 team captain following the match, bounced back and looked primed for the comeback win, putting together a 4-3 second set before the Sunbirds grabbed their 5th point to end the match.
Ikonnikov was also looking good when the match was called, holding a 7-6 (7-4), 4-4 edge over Amarit Sanchez at No. 5. The senior, who closed his career with Azusa Pacific in strong fashion with four wins (double and singles) during the NAIA tournament, was also part of the Cougars’ other win. He and Eger went up 2-1, but dropped four straight games to trail Sanchez and Bruce-Burgess 2-5. The Cougars, however, responded well, taking a 6-5 lead before eventually breaking the Sunbirds for a 9-7 win.
At No. 2 Yam and Wilkens fell victim to an impressive performance from 13th ranked Martinet and Sinitsyn, losing 8-2. In the match that gave Fresno Pacific a 2-1 lead 5th ranked Apelt and Hoefnagels lost to 3rd ranked Smith and Carvalho for the first time this season.