AZUSA, Calif. -- Azusa Pacific seniors Allison Kincheloe, Kelsey Knudsen and Megan Burch couldn’t have asked for a better send-off in their final home match, as the NAIA’s No. 8-ranked Cougars locked up an at-large berth to the NAIA Volleyball National Championship with a 23-25, 25-21, 25-16, 25-22 victory over No. 17-ranked Vanguard Friday night.
Rather than let their team’s postseason fate rest in the hands of the coaches whose votes will determine this weekend’s final NAIA national ranking and at-large selection order, the Cougar seniors each turned in key contributions to help Azusa Pacific solidify its Top 10 ranking with the victory.
“We did everything that we could do to control our own destiny,” Cougar head coach Chris Keife said. “Vanguard’s a great team, and that was what we needed to do to break a 3-team tie. It was a big game, everyone knew what was on the line, and I know our seniors were amped up to play. We were high-error in that first set, and I think it was just a matter of us settling down and getting into our groove.”
Junior outside hitter Jill Baker became Azusa Pacific’s all-time kills leader, registering a match-high 18 kills to push her career total to 1,672 in just seasons, eclipsing previous career record holder Jenna Sagehorn’s 4-year career total of 1,670. Baker entered the match needing 16 kills to tie the record, but she had just 5 kills through the first 2 sets.
The 6-foot-2 Turlock, Calif. native tallied 6 in the third set and 7 more in the fourth, including the record-breaker in the midst of a 9-1 run that swung the fourth set into Azusa Pacific’s favor for good.
“Anytime you get a chance to break a record, you want to be able to do it at home in front of your friends and family,” said Baker, whose single-match and single-season records set last season both occurred on the road.
“It’s even better for the seniors to be able to go out on their senior night with a win. Tonight I started off a little bit timid, but as the match progressed, I wanted to get out of that. It really helped that the team was playing well, and the middles really carried us tonight. Their play really helped open up the block against me, and I think that’s why I was able to pick it up as the match progressed.”
After trailing 13-10 in the fourth set, the Cougars reeled off 7 straight points to start the run, with Baker giving Azusa Pacific a 14-13 lead when she put down an errant Vanguard pass over the net, putting her within 1 of Sagehorn’s career mark. Her next kill tied the record and continued the run, giving the Cougars a 16-13 lead, and she buried her very next opportunity between Vanguard defenders just beyond the 10-foot line across the court for her 1,671st career kill. Baker’s final kill of the match, again a powerful cross-court effort placed just beyond the 10-foot line, gave Azusa Pacific its largest lead of the set at 20-15.
“I hadn’t hit it all night, and I wanted to go back to a spot where I was getting a lot of kills in the beginning of the season,” Baker said of the kill that made her Azusa Pacific’s all-time kills leader. “I put the ball there, it happened to fall, and I had to go back to where it was working.”
Kincheloe assisted Baker’s final 2 kills, including the record-breaker. No stranger to the Cougar record books herself, the senior setter added 29 assists and 2 service aces to her career marks, pushing her career totals to program-records of 5,778 assists and 175 aces.
“Jill’s an all-around great player,” Kincheloe said. “She can just kill the ball, and she’s the go-to girl on the court. I know there’s a lot of pressure that rides on her, because she knows she has a lot to contribute to the team and her expectations are really high.”
“It’s been so fun playing with Jill, and that’s one of the things that’s going to be so hard for us as seniors, to walk away without Jill coming with us. She’s one of our best friends, and it’s almost like she’s a senior with us. She’s been great, and she deserves the kill record.”
Burch, who tallied an efficient 4 kills in 11 attempts and added 1 of Azusa Pacific’s 11 blocks in the match, selflessly surrendered her spot on the floor in favor of Kincheloe several times when the Cougar offense sputtered.
“We were struggling a little bit defending the court, and it just gives the other team a different look with Allison blocking,” Keife said. “I thought we did a good job of defending with 2 setters in there. I just wanted to throw the other team a different look and give us a lift when we were struggling a little bit.”
Knudsen, meanwhile, helped lead the Cougar defense with 5 blocks, rounding out a solid effort from a senior trio that will be the only senior class in Azusa Pacific history to participate in 3 NAIA Tournaments in a 4-year stretch.
“It was a little overwhelming for me before the match, because I was reflecting a little bit on the season, even though it’s not over, and I was also thinking about my career here,” Kincheloe said. “It’s kind of a surreal thing to think that it’s almost over, it’s winding down, and here we are at the end of the last game that I’ll ever play on this floor. This is my family of girls – it’s like a sisterhood, and to say that it’s almost going to be over is really kind of heartbreaking.”
Freshman middle blocker Ariel Beetstra posted a match-high 8 blocks, and sophomore outside hitter Chelsea Daley added an impressive 10-kill effort in 30 attempts with just 2 hitting errors. Daley led the Cougars to the 25-21 second-set win with 5 kills in 12 errorless attempts.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 22-10 overall and secures a fifth-place finish in the GSAC with a 12-8 conference mark. Vanguard’s regular season ends with a record of 15-10 overall, 10-10 GSAC, and the Lions will await Sunday’s final NAIA ranking to see if it will be announced as one of the final at-large selections into the 36-team national tournament field.
“Last year not going to nationals was really upsetting,” Kincheloe said. “To be able to come out with a win and be able to go to nationals in a couple weeks, it’s really exciting for me to be able to say that I’ve been a part of the program going to 3 tournaments in 4 years.”
Azusa Pacific will likely receive 1 of 12 opening-round byes and advance directly to pool play at the final site in Sioux City, Iowa, beginning on Tuesday, Dec. 2.