COSTA MESA, Calif. -- Sophomore outside hitter Jill Baker shattered her own single-match kills record, putting away 37 kills to lead the NAIA’s No. 5-ranked Azusa Pacific to a 5-game road win over No. 17-ranked Vanguard in the regular-season finale.
Baker registered 24 of her 37 kills in games 2 and 4 of the Cougars’ 30-25, 26-30, 30-20, 26-30, 15-9.win, including 14 kills in 21 errorless attempts in the fourth game. She finished with just 6 errors in 68 total attempts for a .456 hitting percentage, the second-highest of her career and her most efficient performance this year.
“These last few games I’ve really been trying hard to have a higher hitting percentage, and I never could have done it without the help of my teammates,” said Baker. “I feel honored to get the record, but I don’t thrive on the pursuit of records and milestones. My satisfaction comes from knowing the hard work we put into practice as a team is paying off when it counts.”
Baker’s previous career-high was 34 kills, set in a 5-game defeat to No. 10-ranked Southern Oregon in the Cougars’ 2007 season opener.
“It feels a lot better this time around,” said Baker. “I really just try to focus on playing doing my job, and it feels a lot better to make this kind of contribution and then be able to enjoy the result as a team.”
The 5-game victory came just 48 hours after suffering a 3-game defeat to No. 4-ranked Biola in an NAIA Region II first-round playoff preview. The Cougars will likely visit Biola for a rematch on Tuesday, Nov. 13, at 7 p.m., with the region’s final at-large berth to the NAIA national tournament at stake.
Azusa Pacific’s hard-fought victory was hardly a 1-player show, however. Senior outside hitter Brianne Huff added 16 digs, including 4 in the decisive fifth game. Huff had a kill sandwiched between a pair of Baker kills that helped the Cougars race out to a 10-3 lead. After Vanguard rallied to within 3 points at 11-8, it was Huff who answered with a kill, a block and another kill for game point before a Vanguard service error finished the match.
“It was hard to keep the ball away from Jill because she was doing so well, but my responsibility as a setter is to be smart with my sets and find the hot hitter,” said junior setter Allison Kincheloe. “After Tuesday’s match, I felt our spirit was taken out of us a little bit. We wanted to find our spirit again and take that into the postseason.”
Junior right side hitter Megan Burch added an efficient 15 kills in 32 attempts, and Kincheloe notched 62 assists for a Cougar offense that posted its highest hitting percentage (.255) of the season for a match lasting more than 3 games. Kincheloe also collected 16 digs, and senior libero Alison Pattison was the Cougars’ defensive leader with a match-high 27 digs.
“All of our girls tonight were very efficient, and Allison did a great job spreading the ball around,” said Cougar head coach Chris Keife. “The improvement in Jill’s play in just 1 year is immense. She was fun to watch tonight, because she was doing whatever she wanted out there. Everytime she got the ball, she was very efficient with it, and that helped open things up for everyone else.”
With the win, Azusa Pacific wraps up the regular season at 12-8 in GSAC play, 21-9 overall, while Vanguard drops to 8-12 GSAC, 10-15 overall. The Cougars will await official confirmation of the regional playoff seedings following the remainder of the conference’s Saturday matches, when it will likely be announced that Azusa Pacific will be the fifth seed and travel to fourth-seeded Biola for a first-round playoff matchup.