ALTAMONTE SPRINGS, Fla. -- The birthday boy iced his own cake Friday.
In a nail-biter of a national semifinal against Armstrong Atlantic, West Florida senior Bruno Savi’s gutsy victory at No. 1 singles proved more than a personal celebration.Not only did it clinch the match against the Pirates, it propelled the Argos (28-0) into Saturday’s NCAA Division II national-title showdown against Hawaii Pacific, earlier semifinal winners Friday against Barry.
“How about that for a birthday present,” West Florida head coach Derrick Racine yelled as Savi exited his Sanlando Park court.
It was the Argos’ version of a birthday serenade -- teammates screaming encouragement and shaking thick, chain-link fencing -- that helped Savi subdue Armstrong Atlantic’s Pedro Scocuglia. His eventual 6-7 (6-8), 6-2, 6-4 victory was as exhausting as it looked.
“We say it’s a family, not a tennis team, so everybody has nicknames,” Savi said. “I wasn’t playing my best [on Friday]. Pedro was playing really well, So when I saw those other guys, I said, ‘I have to play for them.’”
The birthday boy, who also is the oldest Argo (he turned 27 Friday) may extend his party if West Florida prevails against Hawaii Pacific.
“It’s important,” he said. “[Saturday's] going to be the most important match of the whole season.”
First, there was Friday.
The Argos are a noisy bunch. All this week, their pre-match chant has reverberated against the tree cover cushioning Sanlando Park from nearby suburban Orlando neighborhoods. Friday afternoon, players kept the volume up through their matches, yelling from court to court in support of each other and appreciating the verbal backing from teammates not in the lineup.
“We have a lot of Brazilians on the team,” said Savi, himself a Brazil native. “We are used to soccer. And in soccer you scream really loud, So we kind of brought the soccer style to the tennis court.”
“If we can go out there and do our best, great," said junior Elio Latella, an Australia native who serves as the Argos’ yell leader. “If we need that support, great. We all know we’ve got everyone’s backs. No one’s giving up. Everyone’s going to go out there and fight to the last ball. It just gives us a little bit more confidence, really.”
Though he claims he has no yelling or dancing rhythm in those pre-match huddles, Racine is on-board with the Argos’ cheering and chanting.
“It really helps,” he said. “It’s the only sport where you’re kind of all alone. If you’re not playing well, the coach can’t pull you out and put someone else in. So really, you’ve got to have some way to dig down, and if you’ve got guys on the outside supporting you, it makes a huge, huge difference. Most of these guys have played tennis their whole lives, but they’ve never played in a setting like college tennis where you’ve got teammates.”
West Florida’s chant tradition dates to former standout Sean Gunnels, who began the pre-match chants in 2012. West Florida lost to Armstrong Atlantic in that season’s Division II national-title match and Latella inherited the chant-leader role after Gunnels’ graduation that season.
“He’s the loudest and the craziest, too,” Savi said of Latella. “He goes in the middle and just screams.”
On Friday, loud lungs and decibels were good things. Not only did Savi need extra earfuls, West Florida’s overall 5-2 victory against Armstrong Atlantic (20-7) was tougher than numerals indicate. After winning two of three doubles matches -- none easily -- West Florida began singles matches with a 2-1 lead.
As the pace slowed and arduousness increased for both teams, only one singles match, No. 5, ended in straight sets. West Florida’s Felipe Frattini defeated Armstrong Atlantic’s Luca Cerin 6-2, 6-4, which gave West Florida a 3-1 lead.
At No. 1 singles, Savi, the top-ranked Division II player, struggled against Scocuglia. The former entered Friday’s semifinal undefeated in singles play this season, as did West Florida teammates at No. 2 and No. 3, Tony Rajaobelina and Alex Peyrot, respectively.
But Armstrong-Atlantic’s Jaan Kononov felled Rajaobelina at No. 2, making the score 3-2. Peyrot countered with a 6-7 (2-7), 6-3, 6-0 victory at No. 3 to pull the Argos within one point of a national-title berth.
The race was on, with No. 6 singles also close to a finish -- Latella up 5-0 in the third set versus Armstrong Atlantic’s Damian Okrutny -- and Savi and Scocuglia still traded body-blow volleys at No. 1.
The turning point?
“When I broke him in the third set,” Savi said of Scocuglia, a fellow Brazilian “I was down 0-3. When I broke him -- and then he broke me back at 4-2 -- I said, ‘I have to do this for the guys.’”
He did, converting match point before Latella could assist at No. 6 singles, a triumph that gave Savi a 23-0 record in singles this season heading into Saturday’s final.
“It’s the best birthday present you could ask for,” he said. “It’s so good clinching, especially to see your teammates running to you on the court.”