AZUSA, Calif. -- The NAIA’s No. 7-ranked Azusa Pacific averted an upset bid from unranked Vanguard, fighting off 3 consecutive match points with a final 5-0 burst in the fifth set for a 25-21, 20-25, 26-24, 23-25, 16-14 road win over the Lions Saturday night at “The Pit” in Costa Mesa. With the victory, Azusa Pacific head coach Chris Keife became the program’s all-time coaching wins leader in his seventh season with 158 wins.
Junior right side hitter Whittany Radcliffe came through with the match on the line, registering 1 of her team-high 19 kills on Vanguard’s first match point to pull the Cougars to within 14-12. Junior middle blocker Amy Alkazin followed that with back-to-back blocks that tied the set at 14-all, first teaming with sophomore outside hitter Lenna Madden for a block on Kristen Markowitz before partnering with Radcliffe for the set-tying block of the match kills leader Lisa Morgan.
Another Morgan attack error gave Azusa Pacific a 15-14 edge, and Radcliffe’s final kill off the set of junior setter Raechel Jones clinched the crucial road win for the Cougars. Morgan had a match-high 21 kills, but only 2 in the fifth set, for Vanguard.
Radcliffe finished with 19 kills and 4 blocks, while Alkazin tallied 14 kills and a match-high 7 blocks. Junior libero Robin Portela registered 24 digs, her second straight 20-dig performance and fourth of the year, and senior defensive specialist Julia Wehsener contributed to the defensive effort with 14 digs, her third straight match in double figures. Freshman middle blocker Christy Cain provided a huge boost off the bench with a season-high 8 kills in 17 errorless attempts along with 4 blocks.
A 12-2 run in the opening set gave Azusa Pacific a commanding 19-9 lead before Vanguard made a furious rally that hinted of the swings in momentum that were yet to come in the match. The Lions closed the gap to just 3 points at 24-21 with a 12-5 run, but a service error gave the Cougars the 25-21 opening-set win.
Vanguard responded by scoring 13 of the first 17 points of the next set, leading wire-to-wire in a 25-20 second-set win, and the Lions were in position to win the third set with match point at 24-22. However, 1 of Vanguard’s 13 service errors made it 24-23, and Radcliffe tallied consecutive kills to fight off the set point and give the Cougars a 25-24 lead. Another crucial Vanguard mistake, a bad set, resulted in the final point of Azusa Pacific’s 4-0 run to win the set, 26-24.
Despite surrendering an 8-0 run midway through the fourth set that spotted Vanguard a 6-point advantage at 16-10, the Cougars battled back to tie the score twice, at 20-20 and 21-21. An Azusa Pacific service error was followed by a Cougar attack error that gave Vanguard a 23-21 edge, and the teams sided out for Vanguard’s 25-23 win that forced the decisive fifth set.
Neither team led by more than 2 points in the fifth set until Vanguard erased Azusa Pacific’s 8-6 lead with a 7-1 run that made it a 13-9 edge for the Lions. Coming out of a timeout, junior right side hitter Krista Brenner stopped the bleeding with 1 of her 5 kills, and Morgan committed an attack error that made it 13-11. The ensuing Cougar serve resulted in an error, giving Vanguard match point with a 14-11 lead.
Morgan led Vanguard with 21 kills and 12 digs along with 3 aces, and Jamie Heenan added a 15-kill, 13-dig double-double. Ariel Strickler posted a match-high 28 digs and a pair of Vanguard’s 9 service aces. Caitlin Segert led the Lions’ blocking effort with 7 block assists.
With the win, Azusa Pacific held on to a tie for fourth place in the GSAC standings, moving to 16-2 overall and 4-2 in conference play, while Vanguard dropped to 10-5 overall and 2-4 in the GSAC.
The Cougars return to action on Tuesday, Sept. 28, with a visit to the NAIA’s top-ranked Fresno Pacific, which has won 3 straight NAIA championships. Azusa Pacific’s next home contest is Saturday, Oct., 2, against The Master’s College.