COSTA MESA, Calif. -- The average marathon is completed in less time than the 5 hours and 25 minutes it took for Azusa Pacific to outlast the NAIA’s No. 7-ranked Vanguard for a 7-2 women’s tennis victory Friday afternoon in Costa Mesa. The No. 10-ranked Cougars held strong to the finish, winning all 4 of the singles matches that went into 3 sets after posting a doubles sweep.
Sophomore Leah Hoffee finished off the match with an epic 15-13 third-set tiebreaker win at No. 3 singles over Kateryna Malakhova. The third-set tiebreaker, which is won by the first player to 7 points but also requires victory by at least a 2-point margin, pushed the duration of Hoffee’s 6-1, 4-6, 7-6 (15-13) win to a whopping 4 hours and 5 minutes. The grueling singles matchup came after Hoffee had teamed up with junior Casey Wetzig for an 8-3 win at No. 2 doubles that sparked Azusa Pacific to the doubles sweep.
“She probably played over 5 hours of tennis yesterday, which is pretty amazing,” Cougar head coach Mark Bohren said. “Leah’s a great athlete and her athleticism and conditioning provided the difference.”
Hoffee rallied from a 6-3 deficit in the tiebreaker, fighting off 3 straight match points that included a Malakhova double-fault and a disputed lines call by Malakhova that was overturned in Hoffee’s favor by the neutral match official. After pulling even in the tiebreaker, Hoffee never faced another match point.
“I’m a really competitive person, and I just didn’t want to lose a battle of athleticism,” Hoffee said. “My team gave me a lot of support, and that’s what was driving me. I figured I had made it that far, so I might as well just win it. I knew I had to have the mindset to get after it and win each point rather than playing defense and trying not to lose. Once I got on offense, I knew I had to finish it.”
Ironically, a year ago Hoffee suffered a tough 3-set defeat during singles play that forced an Azusa Pacific squad depleted by injuries to its top 2 singles players, to consider defaulting what would have been the match-clinching doubles point. In that match, Hoffee and Marie Tanaka held on for a No. 1 doubles win (9-8) over a Vanguard tandem that included Malakhova.
“I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better since last year, and I wanted to prove it,” Hoffee said. “In doubles, I have a great partner who is very encouraging. I took that enthusiasm and motivation on to my singles match and tried to win it for the team.”
After splitting the first 2 sets at No. 4 singles, sophomore Emily Ignas turned an ankle at the beginning of the third set, yet battled through the injury for an impressive 5-7, 6-1, 6-1 win over Anna Valingsten. Wetzig’s 6-3, 4-6, 6-2 win at No. 5 singles provided the decisive fifth point that clinched the team victory for the Cougars.
Ignas and senior Jessalyn Lau, who provided the match-clinching doubles point in last year’s 5-4 comeback win at Vanguard, teamed up at No. 3 doubles for an 8-5 win, helping lead the Cougars to their third straight road win over the Lions. Junior Sheryl Bon and sophomore Natalie McNall completed the doubles sweep, knocking off Vanguard’s top tandem of Malakhova and Gabriela Bergmanova, 8-6.
“We typically play well in doubles, and it set the tone for singles,” Bohren said. “Sweeping doubles lifts some of the pressure from singles, so it was a big momentum shifter for us.”
Wetzig and Tanaka each won in 3 sets at No. 5 and 6, respectively, clinching the team victory for Azusa Pacific. Wetzig is now 4-1 in singles play this year, while Tanaka improves to 3-0.
The Cougars return to action on Wednesday, March 3, when they visit the NAIA’s No. 2-ranked Fresno Pacific, which is currently 1 match away from tying the GSAC record for the longest conference winning streak. Fresno Pacific has 57 straight GSAC victories, while the Azusa Pacific men’s tennis program holds the conference mark of 58 straight conference wins over a 7-year stretch (2002-08).
“All records are meant to be broken, and that’s been a nice one for our men’s team to have,” Bohren said. “You play these matches for a reason, even if you’re the underdog, and we’re going to give it our best shot.”
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 4-1 overall and 3-1 in GSAC play. Vanguard, whose entire schedule to date has consisted of conference matches, drops to 2-3 on the season.