The first one, in 2003, led to OC's first-ever team national title. The third-ranked Eagles now have a chance to add another championship after rallying from deficits of 3-0 and 4-1 to stun No. 2 Embry-Riddle (Fla.) 5-4 at the Copeland-Cox Tennis Center on Friday afternoon in the NAIA Championship.
OC's Jaime Sanchez-Canamares rallied from a 3-1 third-set deficit to beat Simon Felix at No. 3 singles, setting off a raucous celebration that included a dogpile. OC (19-3) will take a 12-match winning streak into the title match Saturday at 2 p.m. against No. 1 Fresno Pacific (Calif.), which downed Azusa Pacific (Calif.) 5-2 in the other semifinal.
It will be OC's first trip to the title match since 2003. The Eagles needed a miracle rally to reach the final then, too, trailing 5-1, 40-0 in the decisive singles match against Georgia Southwestern.
As Miller told the story, "the kid dumped a volley in the net, my guy took advantage of it and we came back and won 5-4 against Georgia Southwestern. This was a little sweeter. That was a great win, but this was a little sweeter. Embry-Riddle is an unbelievably deep team, an unbelievably well-coached team. We were very fortunate to get out of here today after dropping all the doubles."
Embry-Riddle (20-4) beat visiting OC 5-4 on March 21, so most figured Friday's match would be close. But it looked like a blowout early. All three of Embry-Riddle's doubles teams are ranked in the NAIA's top 20 and they swept their OC counterparts, albeit in tight matches.
At No. 1, top-ranked Adrian Bayh and Patrick Besch beat OC's Bruno Tiberti and Martin Poboril 8-6. At No. 2, 12th-ranked Chris Freeman and Jonathan Leonik downed OC's Pier Pieracciani and Nicolas Auruccio 8-6. The No. 3 match was decided by a 9-7 score, with Embry-Riddle's 20th-ranked Felix and Peter Francis beating Renardy Guelfi and Sanchez-Canamares.
"I challenged the guys between doubles and singles," Miller said. "I asked them, ‘Do you really want to go home after all this work all year long?' They responded very well."
Five OC players each won the first set of their respective matches, which Miller said was key.
"I didn't think Embry played poorly," he said. "I think we just stepped it up and took it to them early in the singles. We got up a set on several courts and set the tone. That put a lot of pressure on them. They think they just need one or two more points, then all of a sudden, they're seeing sets go up on our side of the scoreboard and that really puts pressure on them. We kept the pressure on all throughout the singles and played really well."
Guelfi and Auruccio started OC's rally. At No. 5 singles, Guelfi beat Peter Francis 6-4, 6-1 to put the Eagles on the board. Auruccio, who dropped a three-set match to Embry-Riddle's David Spennare in March, rolled to a 6-4, 6-2 win at the No. 6 position.
Bayh downed Pieracciani 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 at No. 4, putting Embry-Riddle within one point of clinching the match. But that elusive win never came.
OC's top-ranked Bruno Tiberti beat No. 2-ranked Chris Freeman for the second time this season at No. 1 singles, 6-4, 3-6, 6-2, pulling the Eagles within 4-3.
One court over, No. 10-ranked Poboril produced service breaks to win both the first and third sets en route to a 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 win over Besch at No. 2 singles that tied the match. Besch had beaten Poboril in three sets during the teams' March meeting.
That left Sanchez-Canamares, who transferred to OC after playing last season at Fresno Pacific, which won the 2011 national title. Buoyed by his teammates' success, he took the last five games of the match to cap a 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 win.
"We've worked all the season for this moment," Sanchez-Canamares said. "Even after losing all three doubles (matches), we knew we could do it, because we have better players than them. After the doubles, we felt down. You have a lot of questions in your head. But we've got an amazing group, an amazing team. We have confidence. It was me who won the last point, but any one of my teammates could have done it.
"I have experience, all my life, in hard matches. Tennis contains every moment. I was 3-1 down, but I had all my team there, my (assistant) coach, Artie (Burmistrov). This is the reason I am here (at OC). I won nationals last year with Fresno (Pacific) and I promised coach Miller that I was going to win it again (with OC). I was 3-1 down, but I had energy. I don't know where it came from."
Embry-Riddle coach Dave Paschal looked deflated after the match.
"To go up 3-0 was good, but we knew that all six singles matches would be close," Paschal said. "Obviously four of them go three-setters. But hats off to Oklahoma Christian. Down 3-0, they fought for every match. They just wanted it more, I guess. They gutted it out, so credit to them."
Miller said the last time he had a team with as good of chemistry as his current squad has was in 2003. He's hoping the destination for both teams will be the same. It won't be easy - the Eagles lost to Fresno Pacific (25-1) in last year's semifinals by a 5-2 count and the Sunbirds have won two of the last three national titles. But Miller likes how the Eagles have come together.
"They get along unbelievably well and challenge each other, motivate each other, love each other," he said. "I think it's a great group to be around. They're a lot of fun and great representatives of the university. They represent us well, they fight hard for each other and they get each other's back."