Two-time NAIA runner-up Azusa Pacific hopes that this year will be the year. The Cougars have come oh so close twice, and this year they are poised and ready for another chance at that one more win.
“To be honest, we don’t talk about the past 2 seasons,” said Azusa Pacific head coach and NAIA Wilson/ITA Coach of the Year Mark Bohren, who is set for his tenth year at the helm. “We don’t even talk about winning a national championship. We always just talk about playing our best each and every match. We will continue that this year and at the end maybe the result will be different.”
Indeed the Cougars, who have been the NAIA’s No. 1-ranked team for 13 straight polls dating back to the first rating of 2003, have put their best foot forward. They are in the midst of their most successful run in program history, and Bohren and the Cougars have no intention of slowing down.
Over the course of the past 2 seasons, the Cougars are a combined 56-9, including last year’s 31-2 showing, which shattered the school record for wins. Eight players have been named NAIA All-American first team, including last year when 5 of the Cougars’ 6 starters were honored.
All 6 starters return again this year. Three of them are seniors making their last run.
One of the top players in the NAIA, Sam Fletcher will again anchor the Cougar line-up at No. 1. Fletcher, a 3-time NAIA All-American, was named the Ward-Ballinger Outstanding Player of the 2004 NAIA Tournament, which acknowledges the top player in the NAIA. He has posted an 84-9 mark in 3 seasons.
Also returning are fellow seniors Adam Davidson and Gordon Hong. Davidson is a 2-time All-American first team selection and has gone 43-14 the past 2 seasons. Hong has gone 39-13 the past 2 seasons while floating between Nos. 3, 4 and 5.
“Our team will be once again led by these 3 seniors,” said Bohren. “It has been great to watch all 3 player’s games develop over the past 3 years.”
Juniors Boris Bakalov and Tom Jelsma also return looking to push the Cougars over the top. Both were NAIA All-Americans last year and together they team up to form the Cougars’ No. 2 doubles team that posted a 29-3 mark.
“Both Boris and Tom had a solid fall season, which should give them some added confidence for the spring,” said Bohren.
Sophomore David Goodman rounds out the starting returnees. Goodman, an NAIA All-American second team selection last year, missed most of the fall with an injury, but appears ready to go. Junior Justin Green and sophomores Ryan Smith and Jon Wagner will all provide quality depth as returnees. Green and Smith combined to go 11-0 in spot duty last year while Wagner sat out the 2004 season as a red shirt.
“It will be nice to have David back from his injury,” said Bohren.
With all 6 starters returning, there was little room for newcomers, but the Cougars got a pair. Headlining the list is freshman Alex Muresan. In 4 varsity seasons at Ramona High in Riverside, Muresan advanced to the Ivy/Sunkist League individual championship match on 3 occasions. As a 2001 senior, Muresan won the Sunkist League title. He was a 2-time CIF tournament participant advancing to the quarterfinals as a 2000 junior. Also ready to make his debut is Jon Goodrich, a talented freshman from San Jose, Calif.
“With all 6 of our starters back from last year’s team, we should be set for another great year,” said Bohren. “Plus, with the addition of Alex, that should make for a successful season.”
Once again, the Cougar schedule is one of, if not, the best in the NAIA. Fifteen of the Cougars’ 24 dual match opponents are ranked in their respective Top 25. The Cougars will play 6 NCAA Division I opponents, including No. 2-ranked UCLA and BYU. Then there is the always tough Golden State Athletic Conference in which 4 of the 5 teams are nationally-ranked. Though, the Cougars have dominated the conference winning 5 of the past 7 GSAC championships, including each of the past 3 going a perfect 24-0 in the process.
“Our schedule will once again be very challenging with a majority of the teams being ranked in their respective divisions,” said Bohren. “The guys have really put a lot of hard work in the off-season so we are hoping that it will pay off come May. I think everyone is ready for the season to start.”