WEXFORD, Pa. - With a fist pump and a yell from number one singles player and team captain, Paul Jarzynka, the Franciscan University of Steubenville men's tennis team won the Allegheny Mount Collegiate Conference Championship with a 5-2 victory over defending champion Penn State Behrend.
The title is their second in three years, and will send the Barons to the regional NCAA Championships, making them the first FUS team in any sport to qualify for NCAA postseason competition. When Franciscan won the tournament in 2011, they were still in their provisional state of NCAA athletics which rendered them uneligble for NCAA postseason play.
It was an appropriate addition in the Baron vs. Lion rivalry as the two contended against each other for the AMCC title for the third straight season. The 2012 season ended in a Behrend victory over FUS in an upset after Franciscan went undefeated in conference play. After going 6-0 in conference again in 2013, the Barons reversed their playoff results.
"This is a new experience," head coach Jeremy Ellis said. "We have wanted this for so long and we have talked about this moment since the beginning of the season. This year shows their character on and off the court. They are fighters."
Franciscan started the match hoping to win all three doubles matches in the newly restructured first-to-five playoff structure. Winning all three matches would have alleviated pressure for their singles play, requiring them to only win two matches to advance to the NCAA's.
The Barons, who made it a point to improve their doubles play all season, weren't able to sweep doubles, but still won two out of the three matches and went up 2-1. Jarzynka and junior Brian Robau pulled out a victory against Behrend's number one doubles team after a back and forth set that ended 9-7.
"At one point we were down 3-2 and we went back and forth all match," Jarzynka said. "We knew we could beat them. Brian (Robau) told me they were nervous and it helped us gain confidence and return better."
Freshman Zack Quiza and junior Leonel Lacayo matched their teammates by winning the number two doubles match 8-6, to give the Barons a one game advantage heading into singles play.
Number two singles player Lacayo quickly added another point for the Barons beating his opponent 6-0, 6-0, giving FUS a 3-1 advantage. After the Lions won number six singles to pull back within one point, Robau put the Barons just one victory away from the title with a 6-2, 6-3 win in number four singles.
Robau battled through a leg cramp in his second set, and set up doubles partner Jarzynka who earned the final point for FUS, letting out a yell as his opponent failed to return his final shot.
"It was so sweet to get the final victory," said Jarzynka, who won his match 7-5, 6-4. "Coach told me during the match that it was a race to get the final point between me and Zack (Quiza). I'm glad that I got it for him."
After the game, Jarzynka was informed that Ellis intentionally told him the wrong score in Quiza's match in order to loosen him up. In reality Quiza was down 6-5 in his second set and was playing out of view from Jarzynka's court.
While the Barons season isn't over yet, Jarzynka and Robau discussed the future, saying that they need to make sure the rest of the team does get overly confindent heading into next season. Franciscan did win the conference in 2011 and the two juniors said they didn't have the fire in 2012 that will need to have in 2014.
"We are trying to set the standard for this team and for FUS athletics," Robau said. "We won't be over confident next year. We will stay humble and work hard. Next year is a blank slate."
The men's tennis team is the first FUS athletic program to prepare for the NCAA tournament. With the regional tournament potentially coming during or after Franciscan's graduation day, lone Baron senior John Shultis told his coach that he would gladly skip the ceremony in order to play.
"That's dedication," Ellis said. "That's what our whole team is based on."
FUS will look to prepare for their next opponent at their first ever NCAA tournament in May.