AZUSA, Calif. -- Despite suffering a 4-set defeat to the NAIA’s No. 4-ranked Biola, Azusa Pacific sent a message loud and clear to its upcoming Golden State Athletic Conference foes as the second half of the conference schedule approaches. That message was delivered in the form of a near-miracle comeback from a 23-15 opening-set deficit and was reinforced later when the No. 14-ranked Cougars rallied from 2 sets down to claim the third set before eventually conceding a 31-29, 25-18, 15-25, 25-15 defeat to Biola.
Any skeptics who doubted Azusa Pacific’s legitimacy as a factor in the wide-open 2008 GSAC volleyball campaign were given extended glimpses of what the future holds for a young Cougar squad that fielded a starting lineup consisting of 3 true freshmen, 1 sophomore, 1 junior and 1 senior. Clad in pink Tuesday night as part of an American Volleyball Coaches Association effort to raise awareness to the fight against breast cancer, Azusa Pacific put together a second consecutive strong effort against a ranked opponent following last weekend’s impressive 3-set sweep over No. 16 Point Loma Nazarene.
“The atmosphere was awesome,” said Cougar head coach Chris Keife, of a spirited and vocal crowd of 835. “It was a fun environment, the crowd was loud, and there was good volleyball. It was one of those situations that was fun to be a part of, and it was just fun to see everything come together tonight.”
Unfazed by the late 8-point deficit in the opening set, Azusa Pacific reeled off a 10-1 run, fighting off a pair of set points in the process to take its first lead of the match at 25-24. The tough jump-serve of senior setter Allison Kincheloe, who served back-to-back aces to cut Biola’s lead to 23-22, was the catalyst for 7 straight points to start the run, and sophomore outside hitter Chelsea Daley put away 3 kills during the run.
“Our serving and blocking were the main things (that sparked our rally), and those are the things we really focus in on,” Keife said. “We knocked them out of balance a little bit, which allowed us the opportunity to get some good digs and score some more points.”
The lead changed hands 3 more times in the set, and the score was tied 4 additional times, the last time at 29-29, before Biola scraped together back-to-back points to escape with the 31-29 victory for the early advantage in the match.
Biola used a 13-3 run to erase a 2-point deficit midway through the second set, taking a 22-14 lead before claiming the 2-set advantage with a 25-18 win. Azusa Pacific season kills leader, junior outside hitter Jill Baker, was held to just 1 kill in the set, and through 2 sets had registered only 5 kills to 6 errors in 29 attack attempts.
Baker got things going in a hurry in the third set, however, knocking down 3 straight kills in the midst of 5 straight points that gave the Cougars a 10-3 lead. After consecutive Kelsey Mitchell kills, Baker’s kill and subsequent service ace pushed the lead back to 7 points at 12-5, and another pair of back-to-back kills for Baker expanded the margin to 18-9. Her 7 kills led Azusa Pacific’s 14-kill effort in the 25-15 third-set win, and she finished with a match-high 17 kills to go with 11 digs, 2 aces and 1 block.
“Jill’s a rhythm player,” Keife said. “When she feels good about herself and gets into a little rhythm, she gets better. If she struggles for a certain amount of time, but usually she works herself out of it and she did a good job of doing that tonight.”
Biola’s offense was virtually unstoppable in the fourth set, registering 15 kills and 2 errors in 26 attempts, and the Eagles never trailed in the25-15 win that sealed the match victory. Baker, however, scored 3 straight Cougar points on kills, the last pulling Azusa Pacific to within a single point at 11-10 before Biola scored 6 straight points at the start of a 9-1 run that buried any chances of another Cougar comeback.
“At times, we were really good, and at times our inexperience of playing together as a team with so many new players showed up, too, but I’m excited,” Keife said. “I walk away from this and say that we can compete with the best teams (in the NAIA). W e had set-point opportunities in the first set, but the ball didn’t fall our way. We need to keep working to get some of those runs in our favor.”
Daley added 11 kills for the Cougars, and freshman libero Robin Portela was the match digs leader with 22. Freshman middle blocker Amy Alkazin notched 7 kills and a team-high 4 blocks, including a solo stuff that scored the second point of Azusa Pacific’s first-set rally. Kincheloe served a match-high 4 of the Cougars’ 9 aces.
Biola featured 6 players with at least 7 kills, with senior Meghan Warkentin posting 12 kills to pace the Eagles’ offense. Jessica Buffum posted 9 kills and 10 digs, while Kristen Peterson collected 8 kills along with a match-high 5 blocks.
The defeat drops Azusa Pacific to 5-4 in GSAC play, 15-6 overall, heading into Saturday’s visit to No. 8-ranked Vanguard which represents the end of the first half of the 20-game GSAC schedule. Biola takes a record of 7-2 GSAC, 17-2 overall into Saturday’s clash with No. 3-ranked California Baptist.