AZUSA, Calif. -- The NAIA’s No. 9-ranked Azusa Pacific is definitely making progress, but 5-game defeats to second-ranked teams are starting to get old for the Cougars.
Thursday night, it was the NAIA’s No. 2-ranked California Baptist that held off Azusa Pacific in the end in a 30-18, 27-30, 33-35, 30-23, 15-11 victory over the Cougars, who have faced each of the NAIA’s current top 3 in its first 5 Golden State Athletic Conference contests after taking both top-ranked Fresno Pacific and No. 3-ranked Concordia to the brink in 5-game defeats.
Last year, the Cougars were swept in 5 of 7 matches against the top-ranked trio of Fresno Pacific, California Baptist and Concordia, dropping the other 2 in 4 games each. The Cougars have lost 8 in a row to California Baptist, but none of the previous 7 meetings had gone past 4 games.
“It’s somewhat encouraging, but having that situation happen to us several times this year puts a feeling in your stomach that emotionally you don’t want to have,” said Cougar head coach Chris Keife. “Every team in our conference is tough. It would have been nice to come out of 1 of these (5-game matches) with a win under our belt, but hopefully each time we’re in this position we can learn from it, grow from it and be ready for it if and when it happens again.”
Sophomore outside hitter Jill Baker led the way for Azusa Pacific with a team-high 24 kills to go with 21 digs, the third 20-kill, 20-dig performance of her career. Baker recorded 7 kills each in the Cougars’ victorious games 2 and 3, and she tied a season-high with 78 attack attempts, just 2 short of the program single-match record she set in a 5-game home win against Biola as a 2006 freshman.
“Sometimes Jill gets into a great rhythm,” said Keife. “As soon as she gets the sets, I already know it’s going to be terminated when she gets into that groove. I saw that tonight, and when that happens, I give her the court and allow her to do her own thing.”
Senior libero Alison Pattison notched a team-high 28 digs to move into third place on the Cougar career chart with 1,463. Pattison, who currently leads the team with 235 digs on the season, sits 332 digs away from the Azusa Pacific career record of 1,795 held by Stephanie Benitez.
Azusa Pacific got off to a slow start, giving away 10 points on 7 attack and 3 service errors, and California Baptist claimed a 30-18 opening-game victory.
The Cougars took an early 12-10 lead in game 2, but California Baptist recorded 6 of the next 7 points to take 16-13 lead, prompting an Azusa Pacific timeout. The Cougars responded with 3 straight points, a thunderous kill from Tara Chambers followed by back-to-back aces from Pattison, who moved into the top 10 in career aces in program history. The rest of the second game featured 7 ties and 3 lead changes before Baker and Kelsey Knudsen teamed up for a block against Verania Willis to close out a 30-27 second-game win that evened the match at 1 game apiece.
“It took us a full game to get used to what they were doing,” said Keife. “We knocked them off balance and out of their rhythm a little bit in game 2, and I think that gave us a little more confidence.”
Trailing by a single point at 20-19 in the third game, Azusa Pacific reeled off a 9-2 run for a 28-22 lead, but the Lancers answered with 4 straight points before fighting off 3 game points and taking a 30-29 lead. However, a Baker kill saved the Cougars to even the game at 30-30 and Knudsen’s solo block of a Colleen Sweeney attack gave Azusa Pacific another game point opportunity. After trading points, back-to-back Yudelka Bonilla kills gave California Baptist its only game point of game 3 at 33-32. However, a Chelsea Daley kill tied the game at 33-33, the Lancers were whistled for a double hit and Allison Kincheloe closed out the game with an ace for the 35-33 win and a 2-1 advantage in the match.
The Lancers never trailed in a 30-23 fourth-game win in which Willis registered 8 of her match-high 29 kills to send the match to a decisive fifth game.
Just like it had against Fresno Pacific and Concordia, who both were ranked No. 2 in the NAIA when they played the Cougars, Azusa Pacific took the early lead in the fifth game at 4-2 on a Baker kill and 3 Lancer errors (2 attack, 1 service). California Baptist scored 4 straight points, including a pair of aces, to take a lead it would not relinquish at 7-4. The Cougars got within a point 3 times, the last at 11-10 on a resounding Brianne Huff kill that brought the spirited Felix Event Center crowd to its feet. However, Willis answered with a kill that sparked a 3-point run to get the Lancers to game point. After a Lancer attack error brought Azusa Pacific to within 14-11, Willis closed out the match with a kill from the outside off the block of Huff and Knudsen.
Huff recorded 9 of her 10 kills in the final 3 games of the match, and Daley added 18 kills and 10 digs for the Cougars. Knudsen recorded a team-high 6 blocks, while Kincheloe recorded 14 digs to go with 56 assists.
“Brianne did a nice job coming off the bench, giving us a spark when we needed it,” said Keife. “It was tough for us to get into a good rhythm today because of how fast California Baptist was running their offense.”
In addition to her match-high 29 kills, Willis collected 17 digs and 7 blocks for the Lancers, who also got a 22-kill, 30-dig performance from Bonilla.
With the loss, Azusa Pacific drops to 9-4 overall, 2-3 in GSAC play, with all 3 conference defeats coming in 5 games to teams currently ranked in the top 3 of the NAIA. California Baptist improves to 12-2 overall and 5-1 in conference play, giving Lancers head coach Ryan McGuyre his 100th career GSAC coaching victory in 9 seasons of coaching within the conference (3 at Biola, 6 at California Baptist).