AZUSA, Calif. -- An inconsistent afternoon left Azusa Pacific in need of a stabilizing force, and junior right side hitter Whittany Radcliffe stepped into the role with ease when her team needed her most, providing 2 of her team-high 23 kills at the end of the fifth set in a 25-19, 19-25, 25-23, 20-25, 15-12 win over Point Loma Nazarene Saturday afternoon at the Felix Event Center.
Over the final 3 sets, Radcliffe converted 17 kills without an error in just 29 attempts in a situation where even one missed swing could have turned the momentum to the visiting Sea Lions. Tie scores at 6 consecutive points, the last at 11-11, set up a late-match run sparked by a Radcliffe kill off the set of junior setter Raechel Jones.
“We started out pretty strong and hit a plateau in the middle, but I felt like we never gave up,” Radcliffe said. “We stayed focused and were ready to keep fighting no matter how long it took.”
Point Loma Nazarene’s Tabitha Henken, the NAIA’s season kills leader, drilled her next attack beyond the end line for a rare attack error that gave the Cougars a 2-point advantage at 13-11. After a Sea Lions timeout, junior middle blocker Amy Alkazin and sophomore outside hitter Lenna Madden teamed up for 1 of the Cougars’ 12 blocks to make it a 14-11 margin. Henken responded with a kill, the last of her match-high 26, but Radcliffe’s familiar left-handed stroke pounded another Jones set between blockers into the back of the court for match point.
“I don’t watch the score when I play, but I can sense when the match gets tight,” Alkazin said. “I knew we were okay, and I knew we were going to win because of the amount of trust we have on the team. You don’t need to look at the score to see how tight it is, and we trust that each of us will stick to their job rather than let the pressure take them out of control. When that pressure’s on, it’s more fun and more exciting.”
Alkazin added 13 kills in 30 attempts with an efficient .333 attack percentage, and freshman outside hitter Jackie Landers added 10 kills, converting 4 of her final 5 attempts for kills in the final 2 sets of the match. Jones tallied a match-high 33 assists along with 11 digs and 2 aces, and junior middle blocker Ariel Beetstra had a match-high 8 blocks.
Henken led Point Loma Nazarene’s offense with 26 kills against just 5 errors, and she was joined by 3 others with double-figure performances in kills. Alyssa Dwyer notched 15 kills, and Karleigh Kaczmarek and Maddie Dahms added 10 kills apiece.
“We’re grinding out victories,” Cougar head coach Chris Keife said. “More than anything, we’re just trying to focus in on what we do. We’re trying to find our rhythm and create better consistency, and that’s going to be the goal for us for right now.”
Landers’ first kill of the day broke a 7-7 opening-set tie, and the Cougars never trailed again while taking early control of the match with a 25-19 win in the first set. Point Loma Nazarene claimed the second set by the same score, taking advantage of an 11-3 run that began with 4 straight Henken kills to break an early 4-4 tie. The Sea Lions led by at least 5 points the rest of the set, tying the match at 1 set apiece.
In the third set, Point Loma Nazarene rallied from an early 7-3 deficit with a 4-point run that evened the score, and neither team led by more than 2 points the rest of the set. The lead changed hands 4 more times and the score was tied 12 different times, the last coming when 1 of Radcliffe’s 9 third-set kills tied the score at 23-23. Another pivotal attack error from Henken gave the Cougars a 24-23 lead, and Beetstra converted the set point for a 25-23 win and a 2-sets-to-1 lead in the match.
“Our goal is to start strong and stay strong, but we didn’t get on a solid consistent track,” Alkazin said. “You can’t afford to go through the motions against any team in the GSAC, especially not a team as talented as Point Loma. We knew we needed to buckle down and focus on the things we needed to do.”
Henken had 4 more kills at the outset of the fourth set, sparking the Sea Lions to an 11-4 lead. Behind a pair of Landers kills, Azusa Pacific rallied for 5 quick points to trim the margin to 11-9, but the Cougars never got closer than 2 points the rest of the way. Dwyer converted all 7 of her attacks in the set for kills, joining with Henken’s 7 fourth-set kills to lead Point Loma Nazarene to the 25-20 win that sent the match to the decisive fifth set.
“When we served well, we were able to knock their offense out of rhythm, and there were times we blocked well and times where we executed our serve receive well,” Keife said. “Now it’s just a matter of putting all together throughout the whole match. The wheels fell off for us when our serve receive did poorly in the second and fourth sets.”
Point Loma Nazarene has now lost 3 straight following a 5-match winning streak, and the Sea Lions are now 7-6 overall and 1-3 in GSAC play.
Azusa Pacific is now 15-1 overall, just the second time any Cougar squad has ever won 15 of 16 matches to start the year. The first was the 1980 team, which won 20 of its first 21 and went on to win the NAIA title. The Cougars are now 3-1 in GSAC play, with another crucial conference matchup looming on Tuesday, Sept. 21, when the NAIA’s No. 9-ranked Biola visits the Felix Event Center at 7 p.m.