SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH -- With a tournament championship and a perfect record on the line, junior Krista Brenner single-handedly pulled Azusa Pacific off the ledge, and the Cougars parlayed the Brenner save into 3 more victories to win the championship of the Tournament of Champions at Westminster College Saturday afternoon.
Azusa Pacific defeated host Westminster, 26-24, 24-26, 19-25, 25-22, 15-8 to open today’s play and at the same time close out the round robin portion of the tournament. The Cougars then breezed by Daemen College (N.Y.), 25-18, 25-20, 25-15 in a semifinal before holding off College of Idaho in the title match, 26-24, 25-21, 25-22.
With today’s 3-match sweep, Azusa Pacific improves to 8-0 on the season, its best start since opening the 2006 campaign with 9 straight victories. This year’s sprint from the gate, however, nearly came to a tumble had it not been for the 6-foot-4 Brenner. The junior middle blocker rescued a sinking set of Cougars in the opening match.
Unranked Westminster, which stole set point from Azusa Pacific in the second set and closed the third set with a 6-1 run to assume a surprising 2-1 match lead, had the Cougars in trouble with a 5-3 lead in the fourth set. That’s when Brenner stepped forward and kick-started the Cougars toward the match victory and the eventual tournament championship. Brenner fashioned a pair of convincing kills and a block assist to spark a 6-1 run that put Azusa Pacific up 11-7. The Cougars never trailed in the set again and didn’t drop another set the rest of the day.
“Krista was a big reason we came back,” said Cougar coach Chris Keife. “She and Ariel Beetstra got our blocks going and that settled us down. It took about 3 or 4 set for us to figure out Westminster. They’re really a very good team.”
Brenner produced back-to-back kills late in the fifth set and when Westminster’s Kenzie Mitchell followed with a missed attack, the Cougars completed the comeback and averted the scare.
The victory pushed Azusa Pacific into the top seed out of round-robin play, and the Cougars met Daemen in the first semifinal. As was the case in the Friday’s victory over the Wildcats, Azusa Pacific cruised, emptying its bench against an overmatched Daemen. Fourteen different Cougars played, and Azusa Pacific torched the foe with a .473 attack clip.
The win set up a rematch with the NAIA’s No. 16-ranked College of Idaho, which the Cougars had dispatched in 3 sets on Friday. In the title match, neither team enjoyed more than a 5-point lead.
“It’s a little scary playing a good team twice in 2 days, especially since we beat them in 3 the day before,” said Keife. “However, it was evident that our girls really wanted to finish strong.”
In the opening set, C of I rallied from 4 down to take a 19-18 lead. From there the 2 teams traded points until Azusa Pacific closed with a 3 straight counters, sparked by back-to-back kills from Amy Alkazin and Marguerite Hanna.
In the second set, consecutive kills from Brenner highlighted a 5-0 Cougar run that put Azusa Pacific up 10-6. The Coyotes never got within 2 points the rest of the way as Azusa Pacific took a commanding 2-0 lead in the match.
“We executed a little better than Idaho did,” added Keife. “While we didn’t have many aces, our serving was excellent. It kept them off-balance and out of the flow of their offensive scheme.”
Azusa Pacific opened the third set with a 9-4 run but C of I rallied to assume an 18-16 lead, aided by 3 Cougar attack errors in 4 services. Brenner again settled the Cougars with 3 kills in the next 4 serves. Tournament MVP Whittany Radcliffe then closed the match and the tournament with consecutive kills, her 48th and 49th on the day.
“Whittany was great today,” said Keife. “She is efficient in her play, which is very physical, and out of that she has become our go-to player.”
Radcliffe had 20 kills in the win over Westminster, 12 in part-time duty vs. Daemen, and 17 more in the College of Idaho victory. Other Cougars on the all-tournament team with Radcliffe include Alkazin and Brenner, who finished with 30 kills in the 3 matches combined. Junior Robin Portela was named the Libero of the Tournament.
Azusa Pacific returns to the court next weekend with another 2-day tournament at Concordia University in Irvine, Calif., beginning Friday (Sept. 3) when the Cougars take on the NAIA’s No. 25-ranked Carroll College of Helena, Mont., at 11 a.m. in the CU Arena.