ALTAMONTE SPRINGS, Fla. -- Clinching an NCAA Division II national championship didn’t come easy for the Barry women’s team in the first of two national-title matches Saturday at Sanlando Park in suburban Orlando.
Why shouldn’t the men struggle, too?Thanks to Barry’s 5-4 victory against defending champion Armstrong Atlantic in the women’s bracket -- a national final that lasted five and a half hours -- the men’s finalists took the courts two and a half hours after their scheduled start time of 1 p.m.
So what did West Florida (29-0) and Hawaii Pacific (23-1) do? They proceeded to play a similar match worthy of their unbeaten statuses, one that mirrored the women’s in drama and counter-punches.
As the Barry women had done, the West Florida men won all three opening doubles matches to take a 3-0 lead.
Also as the Barry women had done, that big advantage evaporated during the six singles matches that followed.
“We knew it was not over after winning the three doubles,” said West Florida senior Tony Rajaobelina, the Argos’ eventual hero. “We had to take the example and fight on each court. We knew it was going to be hard to win this one.”
Just as the Barry and Armstrong Atlantic women had done hours earlier, West Florida and Hawaii Pacific traded singles victories, with the outcome dwindling to two undecided matches. In the Argos’ and Sea Warriors’ case, that left Rajaobelina at No. 2 singles and junior Elio Latella at No. 6 singles still battling with their team holding an overall 4-3 lead.
Both players were deep in third sets, and either could seal the Argos’ third NCAA Division II title. Ultimately, it was Rajaobelina, a soft-spoken Frenchman, who earned the honor, polishing off Hawaii Pacific’s Jaume Martinez-Vich 2-6, 6-4, 6-3.
“I knew I had to focus on my match,” Rajaobelina said of sneak-peeks at Latella’s progress two courts away. “I knew that I had to win, but I kept watching every point because I wanted him to finish. I was like, ‘ahhh' -- I just wanted it done. But I’m glad I got to finish and won my match.”
Once Latella and Hawaii Pacific’s Clemens Graute knotted at 5-5, Rajaobelina knew he had an opportunity to pick up his teammate, especially after he’d bounced back from a 2-6, first-set drubbing by Martinez-Vich, to win the second set and grab the lead late in the third.
“It was too hard to focus only on my match even though that’s what I was supposed to do,” he said. “I was watching him [Latella] the whole time. It was too difficult not to pay attention to what he was doing.”
That’s because Latella’s match initially appeared to be West Florida’s clincher. When his and Graute’s pace slowed -- the Hawaii Pacific player rebounding to earn that 5-5, third-set tie -- Rajaobelina simply continued piling up points against Martinez-Vich at No 2.
He did it without the hoard of teammates initially clustered at the fences beside his court. Most of West Florida’s cheering section had flocked outside Latella’s court, thinking he’d score match point.
“I felt bad for him,” said West Florida head coach Derrick Racine, who hovered between courts, of Rajaobelina. “Elio’s court was on the end, where everybody could get to, and everybody ran down there at first.”
“They were trying to watch both matches at the same time and both matches were close,” Rajaobelina said. “We had great support today. It was amazing. We wanted it very badly. My opponent was amazing. I don’t know how I came back. The guys gave me the strength to fight for the team and I’m so glad.”