MOBILE, Ala. -- A year ago, Azusa Pacific’s women’s tennis team had a 5-year streak of national quarterfinals appearances snapped with a 5-2 second-round defeat to Brenau (Ga.).
This year, the Cougars’ entire singles lineup from that disappointing finish returns to the Mobile Tennis Center in a strikingly familiar bracket position in the 24-team NAIA Women’s Tennis National Championship that begins Tuesday, May 18. (Click here for the full tournament bracket)
The Cougars, ranked No. 7 in the final NAIA Coaches’ Poll, are also seeded seventh in the 2010 field, earning the first-round bye that accompanies a top-8 seed. The foe for Wednesday’s 9 a.m. (CDT) second-round contest will be the winner of Tuesday’s first-round matchup between unranked Bethel (Kan.) College, the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament champion, and the NAIA’s No. 11-ranked Shorter (Ga.) College, a member of the Southern States Athletic Conference.
Should Azusa Pacific advance with a second-round win over either Bethel or Shorter, it will face GSAC rival Fresno Pacific, the tournament’s No. 2 seed, in the quarterfinals. In 2009, SSAC member Brenau defeated Bethel and Azusa Pacific in the first and second rounds to meet second-seeded Fresno Pacific in the quarterfinals.
Azusa Pacific has a 13-7 overall record, and all 7 defeats have come against teams ranked in the top 5 of the NAIA’s Top 25 Coaches’ Poll. The Cougars are 6-0 against the rest of the Top 25, winning those matchups by a combined 50-4 margin.
“We were so young last year, and this year’s group has done very well against some of the top teams in the NAIA,” head coach Mark Bohren said. “We have continued to get better since last year and throughout this season, and if we play the way we’ve played all year, we can add another layer to what has already been a great season.”
The Golden State Athletic Conference leads all conferences with 5 schools in the championship field, and all 5 GSAC representatives are seeded in the top 7 of the tournament. Azusa Pacific is 1 of 5 programs in the 2010 tournament field that have appeared in each of the past 11 NAIA Tournaments since the NAIA switched its national championship from an individual tournament to a team dual-match format in 2000.
The dual-match format in NAIA Tournament competition begins with 3 doubles matches, each worth 1 team point, which is followed by a lineup of 6 singles matches, which are also each worth 1 team point. In national tournament play, the match ends when one team clinches victory with 5 team points.
COUGAR SINGLES LINEUP
No. 1: All-GSAC junior Sheryl Bon leads off the Azusa Pacific singles lineup, bringing a 9-8 overall singles mark into the tournament. Bon is ranked No. 12 in the ITA’s latest NAIA national singles rankings, and she closed out the regular season with consecutive straight-sets victories over top-10 foes: Fresno Pacific’s Katia Sabate (ITA-NAIA No. 5) and Concordia’s Jennifer Sher (ITA-NAIA No. 9). Bon, winner of the ITA West Region Arthur Ashe Award, is 1-2 in career NAIA Tournament singles play.
No. 2: All-GSAC sophomore Natalie McNall (ITA-NAIA No. 41), registered an 8-9 overall singles record in 2010, closing out the regular season with a 6-1, 7-5 win at No. 1 singles against Biola’s Joelle Tanaka. In last year’s NAIA Tournament matchup, McNall won the opening set (6-4) and led the second (5-3) at the No. 5 spot when Brenau clinched the upset win over Azusa Pacific.
No. 3: Sophomore Leah Hoffee (ITA-NAIA No. 37) is 1 of 3 Cougars with double-digit singles victories this season, bringing a 12-6 mark into the tournament. Hoffee went to 3 sets in singles play 8 times this season, going 5-3 in 3-set matches. One such win was a grueling 4-hour affair in which Hoffee finished off a 3-set victory (6-1, 4-6, 7-6) with an epic 15-13 third-set tiebreaker win over Vanguard’s Kateryna Malakhova (ITA-NAIA No. 35). Hoffee’s only NAIA Tournament experience was an unfinished No. 4 singles match against Brenau in 2009, which was tied at 3-3 in the second set after Hoffee was edged, 6-4, in the opening set.
No. 4: Sophomore Emily Ignas posted a 9-5 singles record, winning 7 of her first 9 matches to start the 2010 campaign. Ignas won 5 of 9 matches at the No. 4 slot, including a 3-set victory over Vanguard’s Anna Valingsten in Azusa Pacific’s 7-2 win on Feb. 26. At last year’s NAIA Tournament, injuries forced Ignas to the top of the Cougars’ singles lineup, a position she had played just 3 times previously, and she was defeated by Brenau’s No. 1 Paula Ghilardotti, 6-1, 6-3.
No. 5: Junior Casey Wetzig is Azusa Pacific’s most experienced player in the singles lineup, with her team-high 15 wins in 2010 pushing her career singles record to 33-22. Wetzig won 11 straight singles matches in the middle of the campaign, including 9 in straight-sets. The No. 5 singles position produced 18 wins in 20 matches for the Cougars in 2010, part of a 35-5 combined record between the No. 5 and 6 spots.
No. 6: Junior Marie Tanaka, Azusa Pacific’s only singles winner in last year’s NAIA Tournament defeat to Brenau, posted an 11-1 singles mark in 2010 and finished the campaign with a career-best 6-match winning streak. Senior Jessalyn Lau posted a 7-2 singles record in 2010, including a 5-1 mark at No. 6.
COUGAR DOUBLES LINEUP
No. 1: (Bon/McNall) The Cougars’ top tandem is ranked No. 12 in the ITA’s NAIA doubles rankings, and the pair won 4 straight matches at No. 1 doubles early in the season and finished with a 5-5 mark. Azusa Pacific was 13-7 at No. 1 doubles in the regular season.
No. 2: (Hoffee/Wetzig) With a 12-4 doubles record compiled exclusively at the No. 2 position, Hoffee and Wetzig were the Cougars’ winningest doubles team in 2010. The pair notched 9 wins against GSAC foes and posted a mid-season 5-match winning streak in which they won the first 4 by a combined 32-5 margin. They teamed up for Azusa Pacific’s only doubles win, an 8-2 victory at No. 1, against Brenau in last year’s NAIA Tournament.
No. 3: (Ignas/Tanaka) Tanaka joined the Cougars’ doubles lineup late in the campaign, teaming up with Ignas for 2 wins in 3 tries at the No. 3 position in April, defeating the No. 3 teams from Vanguard and Fresno Pacific before a season-ending defeat against Concordia’s third doubles pair. Ignas posted a 9-5 doubles record in the regular season.
ABOUT BETHEL: Bethel College, unranked and unseeded with a 14-2 regular season record, earned entry into the 24-team field with its second consecutive KCAC Tournament title. The Threshers posted a 6-0 win over Friends (Kan.) in the KCAC semifinals, then clinched the program’s second NAIA Tournament appearance with a 5-1 win over Kansas Wesleyan for the conference tournament championship. Sophomore Katie Malotte, the KCAC Player of the Year, leads a singles lineup that features 5 All-KCAC players. Malotte teams up with All-KCAC second team junior Rachael Bachman at the top of Bethel’s doubles lineup. The lone senior is 4-time All-KCAC Maya Kehr, who appears at No. 3 in singles and No. 2 doubles with All-KCAC second team junior Allison Kaster.
ABOUT SHORTER: Shorter College, the third-place team from the competitive Southern States Athletic Conference, posted a 16-6 regular-season mark and earned 1 of the 9 at-large spots in the 24-team NAIA Tournament field. Six-time defending NAIA champion Auburn Montgomery (Ala.) and the tournament’s sixth-seeded Brenau both compete in the SSAC, as well, with the SSAC claiming responsibility for eliminating Azusa Pacific in 3 of the last 6 NAIA Tournaments. Shorter won 8 of its final 10 regular-season contests, including 6 by an 8-1 margin or better. Leading the Hawks’ singles lineup is the program’s lone All-SSAC selection Emmanuelle Beaucoudrey, a sophomore from Cean, France, who appears at No. 2 doubles with freshman Coralie Fayard, who also hails from France. Shorter’s No. 1 doubles team consists of junior Jamaican Danielle Monteith and freshman Swede Michaela Tingets.
ABOUT THE DIRECTORS CUP: Azusa Pacific has won 5 consecutive Directors’ Cup trophies, earning recognition as the best overall athletics program in the NAIA, and the Cougars’ pursuit of an NAIA-record sixth Cup hinges on national tournament finishes by 4 Azusa Pacific spring sports programs (men’s & women’s tennis and men’s & women’s track & field).
The Directors’ Cup is a prestigious awards program administered by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA) that annually honors the best overall collegiate athletics programs in the country. Points are awarded to each school based on the postseason national tournament finish of a pre-determined number of men’s and women’s sports. The NAIA award is tabulated using a maximum of 6 men’s and 6 women’s sports. In tennis, a second-round appearance has been worth 53 Directors’ Cup points, with an appearance in the quarterfinals worth 70 points.