Last year, Cougar Athletics counted down the last 30 days of summer with the Cougar Countdown blog series, which contained 30 items of interest to Cougar fans leading into the 2012-13 school year. For the summer of 2013, Cougar Athletics takes a look back with a ranking of Azusa Pacific’s top 13 teams of all-time, which was compiled by the office of Sports Information with input from current and past coaches and administrators. The top 13 teams in Cougar Athletics history will be revealed one at a time each Thursday throughout the summer, culminating with the No. 1 team on August 22.
MAY 30-- No. 13: 2000 Softball
The countdown continues with the No. 12 team
2005 Men’s Tennis
GSAC Champions: 8-0
NAIA National Champions
In 2005 the men's tennis team picked up the program’s first-ever NAIA national championship, running through NAIA competition in a 27-3 season that saw the Cougars finally get over the hump after many deep runs in the national tournament. Azusa Pacific was a remarkable 16-0 against NAIA teams, and notched 11 sweeps while allowing only three NAIA teams to get more than two points in one of the most dominating seasons in the school’s history, closing the year with 15 consecutive victories.
And while the year itself was as impressive as it gets, you’d need to look back at how the two previous seasons ended to truly understand the 2005 Cougars.
In 2003, with a trio of All-American underclassmen (Sam Fletcher, Adam Davidson, and Boris Bakalov), the Cougars (25-7) earned the top-seed in the NAIA national championships before slipping into the program’s first-ever national championship match with back-to-back 5-3 wins in the quarters and semifinals to setup a showdown with Oklahoma Christian. In the title bout, however, OCU flexed its veteran muscle, taking two of three in doubles, followed by three straight-sets victories to claim the NAIA championship, leaving the young Cougars with enough disappointment to fuel them for the 2004 campaign.
With a remarkable 23-match winning streak to open the ’04 season the Cougars looked poised to take home their first NAIA crown, again earning the NAIA’s top-seed heading into the postseason. In the tournament Azusa Pacific rolled through the first two rounds with 5-0 wins over Lindsey Wilson and Embry Riddle before being challenged by Vanguard, which took the Cougars to the brink in a 5-3 semifinal win. But the championship match again proved to be too much for Azusa Pacific, which was pounded by Auburn Montgomery in a 5-0 loss, handing the Cougars their second consecutive runner-up trophy and leaving the once-young roster with one last chance for a title.
When the team, which had each of its top-six players returning, reported for the beginning of the 2005 season smiles and laughs were few and far between. Even after Bakalov brought home the program’s first-ever individual ITA/NAIA championship in the fall, nobody would be satisfied with anything other than a banner.
“I remember that year nobody was in a great mood. There was a group of seniors which had lost two straight national championships, and it was all business,” said head coach Mark Bohren, who has guided the Cougars to two national championships (NAIA and NCCAA) in his 18 years at the helm. “I just remember them doing everything extra, from running the stairs at Citrus College late at night, to coming early and staying late for practice. They had just one goal in mind, and if we didn’t reach it we would have had some pretty heartbroken seniors.”
So with the strictly business mantra, and a veteran group of accomplished upperclassmen, the Cougars got to work, earning the NAIA’s No. 1 ranking in the preseason before embarking on one of the toughest schedules Bohren could put together. Fifteen of the 24 regular season matches were against teams ranked inside the top-25 of their respective preseason polls, including a season-opening road tilt against a UCLA team that was atop the NCAA Division I rankings.
And in the ’05 debut the Cougars showed that they could play with anyone. In doubles Davidson and Fletcher beat the Bruins’ top-team 8-5, showing UCLA that it’d be in for a battle. The Bruins responded with a win at No. 3, defeating David Goodman and Gordon Hong, and with the doubles point still up for grabs Azusa Pacific gave UCLA all it could handle, losing in a tiebreaker before falling to the eventual NCAA champs 7-0.
“I always try to give us a tough schedule, and taking on one of the most storied programs for the season-opener really showed the guys how good we could be. After that match their coach was very complimentary, saying that we were much better than a lot of Division I teams that they faced. We were that good that year,” said Bohren.
The Cougars then rattled off 12 straight wins, beating four NCAA Division I/II teams in the process, with Goodman, Bakalov, and Fletcher going undefeated in the top-three singles spots in that span to maintain the NAIA’s top-spot for the 13th consecutive poll.
A speed bump in the middle of the year ended the run, with the Cougars losing to a BYU program that took second place in the Mountain West Conference, and having their 29-match home winning streak snapped by Drury, ranked No. 6 in Division II. The back-to-back losses were the first in over two seasons for the Cougars, and could have easily derailed the juggernaut that the team turned into through the first half of the year. But Azusa Pacific had been through too much to let a pair of regular season defeats become a hindrance.
“You never like to lose, and both of those teams were strong in the same areas that we were. So it gave some of our guys something to work on before we went to nationals. Those matches kind of woke us up and I think those guys handled it well and used it to keep improving,” said Bohren.
And the Cougars picked up right where they left off, running the table in the latter part of the year to finish the regular season at 21-3 with wins over powerful programs like Hawai’i and Hawai’i Pacific, before claiming the team’s fourth consecutive Golden State Athletic Conference championship.
Fletcher, Goodman, Bakalov, and Davidson all earned all-conference recognition, and Bohren took home the Coach of the Year title. But honors and accolades had come in droves for the program over the past three years, and that season, the team wouldn’t settle for anything less than the NAIA championship.
And for the first time in the past three years the Cougars weren’t the favorites heading into the postseason tournament. Seeded behind No. 1 Santa Fe (N.M.), Azusa Pacific would face its toughest tournament draw in years, with a semifinal battle with the reigning NAIA champs, Auburn Montgomery, looming. After a first round bye they systematically pounded Olivet Nazarene (Ill.) 5-0, and breezed past Virginia Intermont in the quarters with a 5-1 victory, setting up the inevitable showdown with AUM.
“If you look back at the tournaments that was the toughest draw we’d had, and just by looking at the bracket if there was ever a team that wasn’t setup to win it was the 2005 one. To have a semifinal match against Auburn Montgomery, which is still the most dominant program in NAIA history, and then still go out and play in the championship is nearly impossible, so I was really nervous,” said Bohren.
Playing against a team that had swept them in the title match a season ago the Cougars knew they needed a hot-start, if for nothing other than their own confidence. And thankfully the strength of the team would be on display early as Azusa Pacific took control of the match with a blitzing 3-0 start headed into singles play. And needing only two singles wins to advance to its third straight championship match Azusa Pacific needed to hold off an AUM rally. The Senators got wins at No. 2 and No. 4 to pull within a point, but Fletcher, the NAIA’s top-ranked player, came through with a tight 7-5, 7-5 win at No. 1 before Tom Jelsma clinched the championship berth with a 7-6 (4), 6-3 win at No. 6 to earn his 21st victory of the year.
“I said at the beginning that we had to get them in doubles and we just came out on fire,” said Bohren. “I knew that if we could get a lead on them that we had enough depth to pull it off. It was unreal because they were such a good team. I was so happy that we had finally beaten them, but we still had so much work to do. For 10 minutes it was a great feeling, but we had to move on and let it go. The championship was our goal and those guys would not have been satisfied if they didn’t win it.”
So the Cougars headed to a familiar spot in the title match, where they were hoping for an unfamiliar ending that had them hoisting the banner instead of lugging home another runner-up plaque. But for their long-awaited finish to come to fruition Azusa Pacific would need to get past a Santa Fe team that swept Auburn Montgomery early in the year, and was the prohibitive favorite headed into the championship match.
“I was so nervous heading into that match because on paper they were the best team out there. They had some guys who became top-200 players on the ATP. Their No. 3 had beaten Fletcher twice. But there was a part of me that thought that if we could play with some of the best teams in the country that we could pull it off. We had a veteran team that had been there before and it seemed like Santa Fe was confident that they were going to walk over us. But we couldn’t bear the thought of losing another championship match and coming home disappointed and that really drove us,” said Bohren.
And in the final the Cougars again came out blazing, taking two of three in doubles to hold an edge entering singles. A win by Bakalov at No. 2 gave Azusa Pacific a 3-1 advantage, but Santa Fe rallied back with victories on courts three and four to make it a 3-3 contest with Santa Fe owning the momentum. Fletcher, however, wouldn’t be denied, holding on for a 6-4, 6-4 win at No. 1 to position Azusa Pacific one point away from the from the elusive banner.
And with both Jelsma and Hong leading on courts five and six, the Cougars could taste the win. A failed return on a Hong volley clinched the 5-3 victory, ending three seasons of frustration for an Azusa Pacific team that had been on the edge of greatness all too often.
“The feeling was unreal. I was so happy for the guys because they had gone through so much. Fletcher put the team on his back with some of the best tennis I’ve ever seen in the semis and championship, and his singles win really shocked their team and pretty much sealed our fate. I didn’t even know how to react because it was something we wanted so bad for so long, and with three seniors getting ready to leave Azusa Pacific I was really pulling for them more than anything. There is no better way to end a college experience,” said Bohren. “They all went home and burned their runner-up trophies, and I think that had they not won they would have always felt like something was missing from their college experience.”
The 2005 team’s three-year journey towards a banner was laden with more honors than any other stretch in program history. Fletcher, who closed his career with a singles record of 112-10, became Azusa Pacific’s first-ever four-time first-team NAIA-All-American, while Bakalov and Davidson closed out their careers as three-time All-Americans.
Sophomore Goodman, who later became Azusa Pacific’s assistant coach prior to taking a head coaching job at Biola, earned his first of three All-America selections as the Cougars claimed a quarter of the first-team selections. Jelsma gave Azusa Pacific five All-Americans, receiving second-team honors as one three players with 20-plus wins on the year.
“That team will always go down as one of my favorites. We spent so much time together traveling because we didn’t play on campus. They never complained about anything and always worked hard. It was a real special time as a coach,” said Bohren of his team that was also one of six NAIA Scholar teams with a 3.45 GPA. “Those guys were great players, four of them went on to try out with the ATP. But outside of that they were awesome guys. They graduated, and are still a huge part of the Azusa Pacific tennis family. It was just a great group.”
The Cougars have since collected a national championship, and have made eight straight national tournament appearances, culminating with a National Christian College Athletics Association title this past spring. And while the men’s tennis program has fielded some of the school’s most talented teams since, none have quite captured the magic of the ’05 season, earning it a top-13 spot in the illustrious history at Azusa Pacific.
2005 MEN’S TENNIS COACHING STAFF
Head Coach: Mark Bohren
Assistant: Mark Goodman
2005 MEN’S TENNIS ROSTER
Boris Bakalov (6-0, Jr.)
Adam Davidson (6-0, Sr.)
Sam Fletcher (6-1, Sr.)
David Goodman (6-0, So.)
John Goodrich (6-1, Fr.)
Justin Green (5-11, Jr.)
Gordon Hong (5-9, Sr.)
Tom Jelsma (6-3, Jr.)
Alex Muresan (6-4, Fr.)
Ryan Smith (6-0, So.)
Jon Wagner (5-10, So.