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"It just happened to be our year" – OC wins NAIA men's tennis title

Members of the Oklahoma Christian men’s tennis team pose with the traditional red NAIA championship banner after beating No. 1 Fresno Pacific 5-4 on Saturday in the title match.

By Murray Evans
MOBILE, Ala. (May 19, 2012) – The tennis Oklahoma Christian’s Bruno Tiberti was playing in the decisive match of the NAIA Championship was, by all accounts, not a thing of beauty – unless you happened to be wearing maroon on Saturday afternoon.

Tiberti, the No. 1-ranked player in the NAIA, rallied from a 4-1 third-set deficit with the national championship on the line, winning the final five games to lift No. 3 OC past No. 1 Fresno Pacific (Calif.) 5-4 at Copeland-Cox Tennis Center.

“I’m not sure how we pulled it out,” said OC coach Kris Miller, who earlier in the week was named as the Wilson-Intercollegiate Tennis Association NAIA Men’s Coach of the Year. “We just kept saying all week, ‘Just believe, find a way.’ And we did. Our kids are incredible student-athletes.

“It just happened to be our year, I think.”

OC (20-3) won the second NAIA men’s tennis title in the program’s history, having also won in 2003. It was the fifth team national championship for the university and the second during the 2011-12 academic year, as OC’s men’s cross country team won the NAIA title last November. It’s the first time in OC’s history two of its teams have won national titles during the same academic year.

But the tennis championship wouldn’t have happened without two gritty comebacks. In the semifinals against No. 2 Embry-Riddle (Fla.) on Friday, OC trailed 3-0 and 4-1 before rallying to tie the match, then Jaime Sanchez-Canamares came from 3-1 down in the third set to beat his opponent at No. 3 singles and clinch the win.

The exhausted Tiberti did the same on a hot, humid Saturday with temperatures in the 90s. Down 4-1 in the third set to Xavier Smith, he summoned the strength to win the final five games and take the decisive match 4-6, 7-5, 6-4, setting off a raucous celebration by the Eagles.

“It’s not that good to express my emotions right now,” said Tiberti, who after the match was named as the NAIA’s Ward-Ballenger Outstanding Player. “I can’t. I just can’t. We worked so hard. They are better than us, but we knew we could get some points if we put pressure on them at the top singles and the doubles.

“It just happened. I don’t know how. I was losing, I was done. I said, ‘I’ve got to push some more.’”

Aesthetically, it wasn’t pleasing, but it proved effective for Tiberti and the Eagles.

Tiberti’s rally followed a key win by Sanchez-Canamares, who beat Cledson Carvalho 6-1, 4-6, 7-6 (8-6) at the No. 3 singles position to tie the match at 4-4. It was one of three matches the Eagles won by taking a decisive tiebreaker. It was the second straight team title for Sanchez-Canamares, who played last year for Fresno Pacific’s championship-winning squad.

“Both of them were just pure guts,” Miller said of the wins by Sanchez-Canamares and Tiberti. “They had nothing left in the tank. It was all just heart. Jaime came up with some big plays at just the right time. He played big, played strong to finish.

“And Bruno, classic example of winning ugly. Doesn’t matter what it looks like, doesn’t matter how you play as long as you’re playing to win. He found a tactic that was working. It was ugly to everybody but me. It was beautiful tennis.”

OC scratched out a 2-1 lead over the Sunbirds during the doubles matches. Fresno Pacific (25-2) scored an easy win at No. 2, as Kirill Sinitsyn and Nathan Martinet beat OC’s Pier Pieracciani and Nicolas Auruccio 8-1. But OC won tiebreakers in the other two matches.

Sanchez-Canamares and Renardy Guelfi beat Amarit Sanchez and Lloyd Bruce-Burgess 9-8 (7-5) at No. 3, and a few minutes later, Tiberti and Martin Poboril won a tiebreaker 7-2 to finish off a 9-8 win.

“The match felt funny during the doubles,” Fresno Pacific coach Neil Castro said. “When you lose two tie-breakers and you win one at No. 2, 8-1, easy, it just had a funny feel to it.

“Coach Miller does a great job with his guys. I think they just wanted it a little more than us today. They just out-competed us. I think maybe we were more talented, they just out-competed us.”

Four of the six singles matches were decided in straight sets. Poboril beat Sinitsyn, 6-4, 6-4, with the Sunbirds winning at No. 4, No. 5 and No. 6.