AZUSA, Calif. -- For the past few years, Azusa Pacific has been the enigma of the NAIA’s most competitive volleyball conference, the Golden State Athletic Conference. Talented enough to routinely dominate unranked opponents and remain competitive with the traditional GSAC powers yet never quite able to pull off the big win, the Cougars pulled off a thunderous 5-set victory over the NAIA’s No. 4-ranked California Baptist Thursday night. The 25-21, 20-25, 25-22, 18-25, 18-16 win snapped Azusa Pacific’s 9-match losing streak to the Lancers, and it was the Cougars’ first win over a team ranked in the NAIA’s top 5 since 2006.
“We’ve slowly been improving all year,” Cougar head coach Chris Keife said. “More or less, our team is just meshing together. It takes a while, especially when you have so many new players, to play with each other and figure each other out, but I definitely knew that we could pull it off if we just executed at key times.”
Both teams wore special pink jerseys as part of the American Volleyball Coaches Association’s participation in the “Dig Pink” campaign to help raise breast cancer awareness during matches in October, which is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Junior outside hitter Jill Baker, already the Cougars’ record holder for single-match and single-season kills, has had her share of career highlights. Thursday’s 25-kill effort was her 32nd career match with 20 or more kills, but her nearly-flawless effort was the centerpiece of a standout team performance that resulted in Azusa Pacific’s first victory over California Baptist since the 2004 season.
“The past couple matches, I’ve been struggling, so I really wanted to make a turnaround both personally and to have an impact on the outcome of the game,” Baker said. “I’ve had quite a few hitting errors the last couple matches, so I wanted to lower those but still go at them. I want to step into being a more dominant player and being more of a role model for the younger players.”
The Cougars nearly gave the match away, touching a Mical Bell attack headed out of bounds to give California Baptist match point at 14-13, but Baker answered with a kill, just as she did when the Lancers had another match point at 16-15. She put away her final kill of the match to set up Azusa Pacific’s second match point at 17-16, and freshman Ariel Beetstra slid right to join senior Megan Burch for a block of California Baptist’s Fei Shi, who had a match-high 29 kills. The block, Azusa Pacific’s sixth of the match, sealed the victory with the final 18-16 margin.
“We guessed that they would set outside, so I went out to block with Megan,” Beetstra said. “I just went up strong and tried to give it my best. Winning this match was a big deal for us, because our seniors had never beaten California Baptist. We understand how important it is, and we saw from the first time we played them what kind of potential we had.”
Beetstra, 1 of 3 true freshman starters for Azusa Pacific, ended up with a team-high 4 blocks, including the match-winner, adding 8 kills in 14 attempts without an attack error.
Sophomore outside hitter Chelsea Daley added 13 kills and 13 digs, and senior setter Allison Kincheloe anchored a defense that registered 69 digs, its highest total in a GSAC contest this season. Kincheloe led the effort with a match-high 18 digs and freshman libero Robin Portela added 15 digs, her fourth straight match with double-digit digs. Kincheloe also served both of Azusa Pacific’s aces, her eighth straight match with an ace.
Baker and Shi each registered 6 kills in the final set, capping a back-and-forth affair between GSAC Player of the Year candidates.
“When you look at the game tonight, everyone was playing their part, but it almost turned into a Jill Baker and Fei Shi battle,” Keife said. “Jill would get a kill, and then Shi would get a kill, and it just went back and forth, especially in that last set. They just kept going back and forth, and it was fun to watch. When Jill’s playing like that, she’s tough to stop. She was doing well for us, and she executed down the stretch.”
Shi didn’t commit a single attack error for 3 consecutive sets, tallying 17 of her 29 kills in the middle 3 sets, while Baker carried just 2 hitting errors into the final set.
“I felt the pressure a little bit, but that’s the time to rise to the occasion,” Baker said. “I felt my team relying on me a little bit and thought it was important for me to come through. I don’t know if it was our best performance of the year, but I think it showed some maturity for us to pull out this match. We would find a rhythm and then lose it, but once we find our rhythm, we feel like we’re pretty much unstoppable.”
With the win, Azusa Pacific seized sole possession of fourth place in the GSAC, improving to 10-6 in GSAC play and 20-8 overall. Reaching the 20-win plateau gives the Cougars their fifth consecutive 20-win season for the first time in program history. California Baptist has now dropped 6 of its past 10 matches to fall to 20-7 overall and 9-6 GSAC.
The Cougars have the weekend off, returning to action against San Diego Christian on Tuesday, Nov. 4, at 7 p.m.