A Nice Surprise In Surprise, Arizona

Sometimes surprises in sports come when you least expect them. And sometimes they actually happen in Surprise.

Over the past couple of weeks, the PacWest staff has traversed the country, logging thousands of miles to support our student-athletes. Last week, I was in Indiana and Arizona for NCAA meetings and our PacWest men’s and women’s tennis championships. This week, it’s off to Fresno for our men’s and women’s track and field championships. My assistants have been in the Bay Area and on Oahu for our men’s and women’s golf championships.

Hawaii schools swept all the conference tennis and golf titles. BYU-Hawaii won the women’s tennis championship again, while Hawaii Pacific University won its second straight men’s tennis crown. UH-Hilo doubled that total by winning both the men’s and women’s golf championships.

Hilo picked up two plaques as the Vulcans won the 12-team men’s championships at the Hidden Brooke Golf Club in Vallejo. Three days later, Hilo made it a clean sweep by holding off California Baptist to claim the women’s title at Hawaii Prince Golf Club in Ewa Beach. The Vulcans’ Kristen Sawada earned the individual title.

For tennis, I was in Surprise, a growing community about 30 miles northwest of Phoenix. BYU-Hawaii and HPU are used to getting to the conference title match. In my seven years as commissioner, they’ve made it to the championship finals every time, but this year’s match was closer than ever. Dave Porter’s Seasiders came in undefeated, ranked No. 3 in the nation, and fresh off back-to-back national runner-up finishes. HPU, coached by reigning DII National Coach of the Year Lauren Conching, was ranked No. 4 in the nation. BYU-Hawaii won two of three doubles matches to take the lead, but HPU rallied. As temperatures soared to 90 degrees, the heated contest would be settled based on the results of the final two singles matches. With both coaches pacing back and forth between the tense competitions at No. 2 and No. 5 singles, it was the Seasiders’ No. 5 Sasha Ulbrichtova who came from behind in the third set to clinch the 5-3 BYU-Hawaii win.

HPU’s men had an easier time in their men’s title match, as the Sea Warriors cruised to a 5-0 victory over Azusa Pacific. Hendrik Bode’s team, led by All-American and PacWest MVP Petr Michnev, is undefeated this season and rank No. 3 in the nation.

The pleasant surprise came as HPU was celebrating its men’s victory. A staff member from the club, Mario Celarie, formerly of Hawaii, brought an 8-year-old boy named Kai Mills to congratulate the new champs. Celario mentioned that Kai was playing junior tennis and was pretty good at it. Hearing this, Michnev reached down to grab a couple of racquets and handed one to Kai. “Let’s play,” he said. The boy readily agreed and the two headed onto center court.

What happened next was priceless. With Michnev’s teammates cheering on every forehand and backhand, and virtually everyone at the club stopping to watch, the 8-year-old and the All-American volleyed hard for several minutes. It was totally unscripted and heart-warming in every sense – indeed, the boy was very good, and Michnev made him shine. The crowd applauded, Michnev nodded, and Kai had a smile from ear to ear. No one kept score, but a score didn’t matter. This surprising moment touched all who were there – a high point in a busy championship month.