AZUSA, Calif. -- Seniors Sheryl Bon-Bakalov and Casey Wetzig played leading roles as the NAIA’s No. 6-ranked Azusa Pacific cruised to a 7-2 upset of No. 3-ranked Point Loma Nazarene in the regular-season finale, giving the pair a fond memory of the final home match of their 4-year careers.
The victory gave the Cougars a 19-4 regular-season record, tying the program’s regular-season wins record set previously in the 2004 and 2005 campaigns while also clinching a second-place tie with Point Loma Nazarene in the final Golden State Athletic Conference standings with a 13-3 conference mark.
“I don’t know how many teams have the type of bonding that we have with each other, and I feel like that has been crucial to our success so far this season,” Bon-Bakalov said. “We just have to keep treating the season as a marathon, because we’re not done yet. Today was a really great motivator to help us keep working hard towards our next goal.”
The 5-match GSAC winning streak to close out the season sealed Azusa Pacific’s best conference finish since 2008, and it is the fifth time in the past 8 years the Cougars have finished as one of the GSAC’s top 2.
“Our team is one of the best teams in the country, and they worked hard over spring break,” Cougar head coach Mark Bohren said. “They came back fresh and were ready to play, and they’ve played well all season. Point Loma was on a roll, so to beat them today was an impressive victory.”
Wetzig got things off to a strong start with a 6-3, 6-1 win at No. 6 singles, and Bon-Bakalov put her team in position to clinch the match with a win in 1 of the 3 doubles matches after she completed a stirring third-set rally for a win over previously-unbeaten Kristin Strimple at No. 1 singles. Strimple, who last fall earned the title of small-college national singles champion, was 16-0 in 2011 dual matches entering Wednesday’s final regular-season match.
“I challenged Sheryl about a month ago,” Bohren said. “I told her that we aren’t going to be able to win a national championship unless we can win at the top (of the lineup). After I made that challenge, she’s beaten some of the best players in our league, which also happen to be some of the top players in the country.”
Bon-Bakalov lost the opening set, 6-1, and then evened the match with a 6-3 second set. She rallied from a 5-2 third-set deficit to force the decisive third-set tiebreaker, and after spotting Strimple a 2-0 lead in the tiebreaker, she reeled off 7 of the next 8 points for the momentum-building win.
“I was already excited after the second set just to win a set from Strimple, and I was tempted to leave it at that,” Bon-Bakalov said. “Casey’s win really motivated me, and I knew if I focused and kept fighting, I could actually win. Going into the tiebreaker, I just wanted to keep working the same way I had to get to that point.”
The Cougars needed only 1 win out of 3 doubles matches, which junior Natalie McNall and freshman Molly Ruby delivered, 9-7, at No. 3 doubles while singles play was still wrapping up.
With the match victory already in hand, Bon-Bakalov and Wetzig took a figurative victory lap as they both posted victories to complete the doubles sweep. Bon-Bakalov teamed up with freshman Emily Harris at No. 1 doubles for an 8-6 win, posting another comeback from 3 games down (6-3) for the victory, and Wetzig wrapped up the match with an 8-5 win with junior Leah Hoffee at the No. 2 doubles position.
“I really thought we were going to win today, but I thought it was going to be a 5-4 type of match,” Wetzig said. “After we got ahead by so much, everyone relaxed and just had fun.”
Hoffee was right behind Wetzig with a straight-set singles victory at No. 5 (6-0, 6-2), and Harris pushed the lead to 3-0 with a 6-2, 7-5 win at No. 3 singles over Jessica Kwan. Ashley Litchfield rolled to a 6-0 opening-set win over McNall at No. 3, but needed an 11-9 second-set tiebreaker to post Point Loma Nazarene’s first win.
“I didn’t want to walk off the court without winning after spending 4 years here,” Wetzig said. “I definitely did everything I could, and I just felt ready today. I expected to win, and I went out there and did it.”
After Bon-Bakalov finished her thrilling comeback, freshman Kim Koetterheinrich was edged out by an 11-9 third-set tiebreaker that completed a 3-hour, 25-minute marathon against Rachel Owens at No. 4 singles. After dropping the opening set, 7-5, Koetterheinrich battled back from a 4-1 second-set deficit for a 7-6 win (7-4 tiebreaker) that forced the third set, which Owens claimed with the 11-9 tiebreaker just minutes after Azusa Pacific clinched the match with the No. 3 doubles win.
The defeat dropped Point Loma Nazarene to a final regular-season record of 18-3 overall, 13-3 GSAC. The GSAC does not have a postseason tournament, so the next team competition for both Azusa Pacific and Point Loma Nazarene will be appearances at the NAIA Women’s Tennis National Championship, held May 17-21 in Mobile, Ala.