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December 4, 2008
Gary Pine
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SIOUX CITY, Iowa -- Azusa Pacific saved its best for last and thumped the NAIA’s No. 5-ranked Columbia College (Mo.) in 3 sets, 25-22, 25-21, 25-22, to win its pool and advance to the 12-team single-elimination championship bracket of the 25th Annual NAIA Women’s Volleyball Championship Tournament.

The Cougars, who had swept 2 other foes in previous pool play action, were particularly sharp against Columbia, especially in the middle of each set. In all 3 sets, the 2 teams battled to 13-13 ties before Azusa Pacific took control and pulled away from Columbia for near identical scores.

“This was a big match for all of us, and there was a case of jitters each time,” said Cougar head coach Chris Keife. “Once we settled into the game and got our focus, which seemed to take until about the 13th point, we really played well.”

For the third straight match, All-American Jill Baker led the Cougars with 16 kills on just 31 attempts, while sophomore Chelsea Daley followed with 11 kills.

“We didn’t focus on where to hit the ball or what not to do,” added Keife. “Jill was just great today and that opened it up for everybody. We did a good job of mixing up hits between tips and driven balls and kept Columbia off balance. We had them on a yo-yo, and they had a hard time adjusting.”

A Marguerite Hanna ace, 1 of 5 for the Cougars in the match, gave Azusa Pacific a 14-13 advantage in the opening set and Azusa Pacific never trailed again, using a Baker kill and Columbia attack and service errors to close out the final 3 points of the first set.

In the second set, freshman Amy Alkazin’s kill sparked a 4-0 Cougar run that put Azusa Pacific up 17-13. Columbia never got any closer than within 2 the rest of the way, faltering again with service and attack errors to give Azusa Pacific the victory.

“We felt that if we kept pressure on them by keeping the ball in play, staying away from their top players and forcing them to involve some of their weaker players, that they would struggle to execute,” said Keife.

In the third set, another Baker kill followed by another Columbia attack error spurred a 7-2 Cougar run to give Azusa Pacific an insurmountable 20-15 advantage. This time, though, a Cougar positive closed out the set and match when for the second straight day a Kelsey Knudsen kill closed out play.

“We knew we had to isolate their outside hitter and setter,” said Alkazin, “and once we did that and kind of shut them down, from there on out we played our game and executed each ball.”

“I was focusing on their setter and where she was at all times,” said freshman libero Robin Portela. “She’s an offensive setter, and we had to stop her. As the match went on and we slowed her, my game was to read their outside hitter and stop her.”

Now 25-10 on the season, Azusa Pacific snaps Columbia’s 17-match winning steak. Columbia, which is 41-4 on the season, hadn’t lost since Oct. 18. In addition, Azusa Pacific is the first team to sweep Columbia since Sept. of 2007, a stretch of 72 matches.

“It was a fun match,” said Keife, whose program got some measure of revenge over Columbia, which knocked the Cougars out of the 2006 NAIA Tournament in a 5-game thriller on Columbia’s home court. “We played very well and got a thorn out of our side and that always feels nice.”

Azusa Pacific, which is ranked No. 8 in the NAIA, wins its pool with a perfect 3-0 record and is the only school in the 24-team field to not drop a set in pool play. The Cougars join 6 other Golden State Athletic Conference schools – Biola, Cal Baptist, Concordia, Fresno Pacific, Point Loma Nazarene and Vanguard – in the 12-team single-elimination championship bracket which begins play Friday morning.

“To have 7 teams from our conference among the final 12 is phenomenal,” said Keife. “In winning our pool, it helped to not have another GSAC team in it. Now, however, we’re bound to run into each other, and it should be some great volleyball.”

Later tonight, the NAIA Tournament Committee will establish the single-elimination bracket for Friday morning’s play which will lead into the afternoon’s quarterfinal action.