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Southern Heat Cools Cougars

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May 20, 2011
Joe Reinsch
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MOBILE, Ala. -- The effects of Azusa Pacific’s grueling 5-3 quarterfinal win over Oklahoma Christian resulted in a slow start and a 5-0 defeat for No. 4-seeded Azusa Pacific in Friday’s semifinals against No. 1-seeded defending NAIA champion Fresno Pacific.

This week’s NAIA Tournament run marked the program’s fourth NAIA semifinals appearance and was its first since 2006, and the Cougars’ 21-5 overall record tied the program’s single-season wins record shared by the program’s 3 previous national semifinalist squads in 2004, 2005, and 2006.

Azusa Pacific’s grueling Thursday quarterfinal contest took its toll on the Cougars’ depth, which had been one of its greatest areas of strength throughout the year. Junior Leah Hoffee and senior Casey Wetzig, who were 14-3 together in doubles and a combined 34-3 in singles this year, each sat out a portion of Friday’s contest. Hoffee rested during doubles to conserve her strength for her singles match, and Wetzig competed in doubles with freshman Kim Koetterheinrich before allowing freshman Molly Ruby take her No. 6 singles position for what turned out to be the final match of her 4-year career.

Due to the partner switch, Azusa Pacific’s regular No. 3 pair of junior Natalie McNall and Ruby were moved up to No. 2 in the doubles lineup while Wetzig and Koetterheinrich were teamed up in doubles for the first time together all season in the No. 3 slot. Fresno Pacific took advantage, winning all 3 doubles by a combined 24-7 margin to take a 3-0 lead into singles play.

The Cougars made things interesting for a while, taking an opening set with McNall at No. 2 while forcing a pair of first-set tiebreakers with senior Sheryl Bon-Bakalov at No. 1 singles and freshman Emily Harris at No. 3. However, both of their Sunbirds counterparts won the 7-point tiebreaker, giving Fresno Pacific opening-set wins at 5 of the 6 singles positions.

The Cougars still were not out of it, showing signs of life throughout the lineup. Bon-Bakalov won the first 3 games of her second set, and Harris held a 3-1 edge in her second set. The most surprising turn of events came at the No. 4 position, where Koetterheinrich stormed back after dropping 9 straight games to win 4 games in a row and take a 4-3 lead in the second set after a 6-0 opening-set defeat. Koetterheinrich also led, 5-4, before Yumiko Justin recovered to win the next 3 games and save a straight-sets win that pushed Azusa Pacific to the brink of elimination.

Ruby, who registered a 12-2 singles record during the regular season, dropped a 6-3 opening set at No. 6, but she was never more than a game back throughout a second set in which her opponent was forced to take a medical timeout. Hoffee, who battled deep into an unfinished third set Thursday, was able to put up a good fight, winning more games from Erika Januskova than Fresno Pacific’s 2 previous opponents combined, but Januskova was strong from start to finish in a 6-2, 6-1 match-clinching victory that put the Sunbirds into the NAIA title match for the sixth consecutive season.

The defeat was just the second of the season and snapped a 12-match winning streak for Hoffee, who finishes the year with a 15-2 singles record. The doubles sweep was only the second of the year suffered by Azusa Pacific, the other coming in a 7-2 regular-season loss to Fresno Pacific.