AZUSA, Calif. -- Ah, the joys of Golden State Athletic Conference volleyball. Fresh off a 10-2 start to the 2008 campaign, the NAIA’s No. 16-ranked Azusa Pacific eased into conference play with none other than Fresno Pacific, winner of 8 consecutive conference titles and the reigning NAIA champion.
The Sunbirds, who returned all but 1 starter from last year’s championship squad, certainly lived up to their current NAIA No. 1 national ranking, posting a 25-20, 25-15, 25-23 sweep over the Cougars in the GSAC volleyball opener Tuesday night. The victory extended Fresno Pacific’s series winning streak over Azusa Pacific to 35 matches, and the Sunbirds have a 23-match road winning streak over the Cougars that dates back to 1985.
Despite the defeat, Azusa Pacific put together an efficient attack, given that Fresno Pacific’s blocking line that included 6-foot-4 Brazilian Thais Julio, 6-foot-3 Chinese native Ke Ke Wang and 6-foot-1 Lisa Shilling had a hand in 7 of the Sunbirds’ 8 team blocks. The Cougars offense converted at a .194 clip, its highest attack percentage against Fresno Pacific during head coach Chris Keife’s 5-year tenure.
“One thing we’ve really wanted to work on is getting more people involved in our offense instead of relying on just one or two players,” said Keife. “We’re a young team, and it’s just a matter of us being on the floor together over a longer period of time and getting into a rhythm.”
The Azusa Pacific offense entered the match with 2 players at the same position, outside hitters Jill Baker and Chelsea Daley, accounting for nearly 60 percent of the team’s total kills. Freshman Amy Alkazin shared the match-high of 7 kills with Baker and Daley, and a total of 5 Cougars registered double-digits in attempts to indicate the balance within the offense.
Baker notched a match-high 11 digs, her fifth straight double-digit effort in that category, and Alkazin finished with a team-high 4 blocks, a personal season-high for the 5-foot-10 true freshman. The Cougars also limited Fresno Pacific’s serve to 3 total aces in the match, well below the Sunbirds season average of 2.2 aces per set entering the contest.
Fresno Pacific was led by its senior outside hitter, Brazilian Fabiana Leomil, who posted a match-high 12 kills and served 2 of her team’s 3 aces. Wang, a sophomore outside hitter, added 10 kills and a match-high 5 blocks, while Chinese senior setter Shu Liu registered 34 assists and ran the Sunbirds offense to a .315 attack percentage.
“We’ve played better (in other matches) this year, but part of that is Fresno Pacific’s execution,” said Keife. “A lot of the things we struggled with were a product of them keeping us on edge. It’s good for us to see a game like this, to see the areas we need to improve for the next time we play them.”
The Cougars led the opening set by as many as 4 points at an 11-7 margin and didn’t trail until dropping behind by a point at 17-16. After a Burch kill evened the set at 17-17, Fresno Pacific finished the set on an 8-3 run for a 25-20 opening-set victory. The Sunbirds never trailed in the second set, although the Cougars pulled within 2 points at 14-12 before an 11-3 run closed out the set by a 25-15 margin.
Once it took an early 4-3 lead in the third set, Azusa Pacific maintained its advantage deep into the frame. The Cougars held a 20-18 margin and needed just 5 more points to avoid the 3-set sweep, but Fresno Pacific used a 4-point run to take a 22-20 lead. The Sunbirds added back-to-back points on a Julie De Jager kill and its eighth block of the match to earn set point at 24-21, and a Cougar service error at 24-23 ended the match.
“Serving is always under our control, and it continues to be an area in which we need to do a better job,” said Keife. “We had 2 aces and 10 errors tonight, so we need to fix those ratios into our favor. We missed too many serves in key moments tonight, but we have the potential to be a very good serving team. It’s just a matter of becoming more comfortable out there.”
Azusa Pacific drops to 0-1 in GSAC play, 10-3 overall, while Fresno Pacific’s season-opening 9-match winning streak extends its current overall winning streak to 21 straight. The Sunbirds, now 9-0 overall and 1-0 GSAC, are 151-7 in conference play since 2000.