FRESNO, Calif. -- There are a few rules when it comes to Fresno Pacific volleyball.
For starters, the Sunbirds don’t lose to Azusa Pacific.
They also don’t lose at home or in conference play.
And when Fresno Pacific takes the first 2 games – get ready for your next match.
In Tuesday night’s Golden State Athletic Conference opener, the NAIA’s No. 8-ranked Azusa Pacific essentially threw those rules out the window in a 30-17, 30-24, 20-30, 26-30, 15-11 defeat, scaring a No. 2-ranked Fresno Pacific squad that is expected to take over the top spot in the new national rankings that will be released Wednesday afternoon.
The Cougars had to rebound from a 2-game deficit, despite holding a commanding 17-8 advantage in a second game that could have evened the match at 1 game apiece. Still, a spectacular performance from sophomore Jill Baker helped Azusa Pacific become the first team visiting Fresno Pacific in over 6 years to force a fifth game against the Sunbirds after dropping the first 2 games.
“We have been working on being a physical team, to have the pride about our team that we can play with anybody in the nation,” said Baker. “We don’t want to feel defeated from the moment we walk into the gym, and tonight we played like we had nothing to lose. We know now that we can compete with anyone.”
Baker led Azusa Pacific with a match-high 24 kills, including 16 over the final 3 games of the match, nearly overcoming an enormous second-game comeback by Fresno Pacific. The 7-time defending GSAC champions used a 22-7 run to close out the second game and take a 2-0 lead in the match.
Prior to Tuesday’s thriller, Fresno Pacific had won 32 straight against Azusa Pacific in relatively easy fashion, only twice going 5 games in those 13 seasons, most recently in 2003.
Fresno Pacific also entered the evening with a 76-match home win streak, and the Sunbirds have never lost more than once in conference play in a single season since the GSAC expanded to its current 11-team format in 2001.
Most impressively, since 2002, no team had forced a fifth game with Fresno Pacific when facing a 2-0 deficit.
It was a validation of sorts for Azusa Pacific, which suffered a heartbreaking 5-game defeat to unranked Southern Oregon just 11 days earlier at the Sunbird Invitational hosted by Fresno Pacific. The Cougars had since reeled off 6 straight victories, the last 5 being 3-game sweeps on a recent East Coast swing through New York.
After Fresno Pacific took the first game by a commanding 30-17 margin, the Cougars responded by taking a 17-8 lead in the second game. The Sunbirds rallied to take their first lead at 24-23 before cruising to a 30-24 win in the second game.
In the third game, Azusa Pacific seized the lead at 8-7 and never trailed again en route to a 30-20 third-game victory. Clinging to a 20-18 lead, the Cougars came out of a timeout with back-to-back points from Chelsea Daley, whose kill and subsequent ace sparked a 10-2 run that closed out the third game.
With the score knotted at 12-12 in the fourth game, Baker’s service ace gave Azusa Pacific another lead it would not relinquish. Fresno Pacific tied the game once more at 17-17, but a Sunbird attack error, 2 Baker kills and a Daley service ace accounted for the first 4 points of a 9-2 run that gave the Cougars a 26-19 advantage. Fresno Pacific stormed back to within 2 points at 27-25, but Baker and Daley combined for the final 3 kills to close out the 30-26 win and send the match to a decisive fifth game.
“Jill Baker was phenomenal,” said Cougar head coach Chris Keife. “She did pretty much whatever she wanted from game 3 on. In that second game, we were up big, and it took a big run for Fresno Pacific to finish the game off. After that, the girls knew they could compete, and they took that into the final 3 games of the match.”
After 4 ties early in game 5, Fresno Pacific took its first lead of the final game at 6-5, but Baker evened the game once more at 7-7 with an ace. Fresno Pacific’s Lisa Shilling came up with a block and a kill to give the Sunbirds a 9-7 lead, but an attack error and a Daley kill tied the game once more at 9-9. The Sunbirds’ Brittany Pierce put down 3 straight kills for a 12-9 lead, and Fresno Pacific scored 6 of the match’s final 8 points to seal the victory with the 15-11 fifth-game win.
“Fifth games can go either way,” said Baker, “and all you can do is try to play your best in such a short game. As it turns out, that second game really came back to bite us. We just need to learn from it and try to be more consistent over an entire match.”
Daley finished with 17 kills and 13 digs, while Baker added 10 digs for the Cougars. Senior libero Alison Pattison came up with a team-high 15 digs, and junior setter Allison Kincheloe was the fourth Cougar in double-digits in digs with 10 to go with her 49 assists. Junior Megan Burch added 7 kills and a pair of aces, and sophomore Briana Sardo registered 5 kills with no errors in 13 attempts for a team-high .385 attack percentage.
Fresno Pacific was led by Pierce’s 19 kills, while Fabiana Leomil tallied 14 kills to go with match-highs of 20 digs and 6 aces. Lisa Shilling recorded a match-high 11 blocks, and Marin Canaday collected 18 kills and 5 blocks for the Sunbirds, who extended their home winning streak to 77 matches.
With the loss, Azusa Pacific drops to 7-2 overall, 0-1 in GSAC play, while Fresno Pacific improves to 8-0 overall, 1-0 in GSAC play. The Cougars are back in action Saturday, Sept. 8, when they visit The Master’s at 3 p.m. in another GSAC contest.