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Lobos Open Title Defense with 4-1 Win Over Air Force

by Frank Mercogliano

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It was deja vu all over again, even if only four people in the entire program knew it.  For the second straight season, UNM lost the doubles point to Air Force, and for the second straight season, it just didn’t matter.  New Mexico bolting to a commanding lead in singles and hammered home four wins, with Jan Pucalka putting the exclamation point on an emphatic comeback as UNM took down Air Force 4-1 to open Mountain West play.

The Lobos improved to 7-9 on the season and more importantly, 1-0 in the league while Air Force fell to 12-7 overall and 0-2 in the league.

The only two real differences between last year’s match and this year’s was the time of the season and the cast of characters.  UNM’s 4-1 win last year clinched back-to-back championships and sent UNM into the NCAA Tournament.  This year’s match wasn’t the final one, it was the conference opener.  As for the cast of characters, only three players, Alex Maggs, Rafael Abdulsalam and Nicolas Prieto are the only Lobos remaining from last year’s squad, and only Maggs and Abdulsalam actually played in the match last year.

None of it mattered.

Just like last year, Air Force took the doubles point, this time 2-0, winning both at No. 1 and No. 2 6-3.  At No. 1, Jordan Azuma and Robert Baylon beat Prieto and Arda Azkara while at No. 2 Jonathan Mascagni and Arjun Kersten beat Maggs and Jan Pucalka.

That sent Air Force up 1-0 in singles, but  UNM’s “Fab Five” freshmen, in the lineup for singles in their conference debuts, were phenominal.  UNM took five of the six opening sets to put the pressure on.  It started when the only non-freshman, Abdulsalam, playing at No. 2 beat Mascagni 6-1 to open his match.  That was followed by Pucalka at No. 5 winning his opening set 6-3 and then by fellow rookies Aram Noroozian at No. 3 and Daniil Kakhniuk at No. 4.  Noroozian, the reigning Mountain West Freshman of the Week, won his opening set 6-4 as did Kakhniuk.

With UNM taking four first sets, another freshman, Georgio Samaha, won his 6-4, delighting a large following of family watching the Albuquerque natives’ match.  UNM’s only loss in the opening set was at No. 1 when Azkara lost 7-5 in a set that should have rightly gone to a tiebreaker, except for an uncharacteristic mistake when at 15-30 and serving down 6-5, Azkara set his opponent Robert Baylon tumbling into the corner.  Azkara had the entire court in front of him, and mistakenly put the ball into the net with Naylon out of the picture.  Two points later Baylon took the opening set.

From there, UNM rolled.  Abdulsalam finished off Mascagni quickly, serving up a pair of aces in the final game as he rolled 6-1, 6-2.  Up 2-0, all eyes turned westward as Samaha and Pucalka moved towards wins.  Samaha finished first, winning 6-4, 7-5 after turning in a final-game break of serve.  That made it 3-0 UNM and it was all but over as Pucalka was one point away.  He forced Justin Waldman to the left side of the court with a vicious forehard, which Waldman did well to get to.  However, all it did was set up Pucalka for a winner to the right side.  With it, Pucalka’s racquet went one way, and his fists went the other, turning to the crowd with a patented growl, puncuating the win.

Kakhniuk’s match was halted with him up 6-4, 0-6, 2-1, and Azkara was on his way to evening his match at 5-7, 3-2 when halted.

The Lobos head to Nevada for a match on Friday, April 8 at 1 pm before returning to finish off the weekend with a home match at McKinnon against Boise State at noon.

NOTES: UNM has now won 15 of its last 16 Mountain West matches … Samaha’s win gave him a team-leading 13 singles wins … Noroozian’s win gives him two in a row.