FULLERTON, Calif. -- Despite the potential to look ahead to an upcoming 4-match stretch that includes 3 teams ranked in the NAIA’s top 16, No. 8-ranked Azusa Pacific kept its focus on Tuesday’s opponent, sweeping Hope International in 3 sets Tuesday night in Fullerton, 25-21, 25-19, 25-19.
Instead, the Cougars took just over an hour -- 71 minutes to be exact -- to notch a 3-set sweep for the program’s first back-to-back 3-set wins in GSAC play since 2008, when Azusa Pacific notched consecutive sweeps over San Diego Christian and Point Loma Nazarene.
“We haven’t played our best volleyball lately, but our girls have been in the conference long enough to know they can’t take a night off,” Cougar head coach Chris Keife said. “I thought that even though we weren’t playing at a particularly high level, we came out and took care of business the way we needed to.”
Starting with Friday’s clash with No. 16 Concordia, which was ranked in the top 10 as recently as last week, the Cougars face NAIA-ranked foes in 3 of the next 4 matches and 5 of the next 7. The matchup has a rare 7:30 p.m. start time, and it kicks off Azusa Pacific’s Homecoming Weekend with a rematch of last year’s NAIA volleyball quarterfinals, a 4-set Cougar defeat to Concordia.
“There’s three Top-10 teams in 4 matches,” said Keife. “I told my team we couldn’t overlook Hope International if we wanted to enter that stretch on a good note.”
Outside hitter Jackie Landers posted a match-high 13 kills, also a season-high for the 6-foot-1 true freshman, and she got Azusa Pacific off to a quick start with 6 kills in the opening set alone. She scored 3 of the Cougars’ final 5 points of the set on kills, which was part of an 8-3 run to turn a back-and-forth set that featured 14 ties and 8 lead changes into a 25-21 win.
Late in the second set, Landers registered back-to-back points on a block and kill that helped spark another 8-3 set-ending run. She also recorded a pair of kills in the midst of a 7-0 run midway through the third set, helping turn an 8-7 deficit into a commanding 14-8 advantage, and Azusa Pacific led by at least 3 points the rest of the way as it closed out the match with consecutive 25-19 set victories.
Other offensive leaders for the Cougars included juniors Krista Brenner (9 kills) and Whittany Radcliffe (8 kills), and junior middle blocker Ariel Beetstra converted for 4 kills in just 6 attempts for a .667 attack percentage. Despite playing in only the third set, freshman middle blocker Christy Cain was Azusa Pacific’s blocking leader with 3 blocks (1 solo, 2 assist).
Junior libero Robin Portela led the defense with a team-high 9 digs, and all 3 Cougar setters registered at least 5 assists with junior Raechel Jones posting a team-high 18 assists.
Hope International was led by Naomi Iosia’s 11-kill, 13-dig effort, but no other player reached double-digits in either kills or digs. In fact, the rest of Iosia’s teammates combined for just 17 more digs, although the Royals tied their team season-high with 12 team blocks Ashley Travis and Christina Richards were each in on a match-high 6 blocks.
With the win, Azusa Pacific remains in a tie with No. 14 Point Loma Nazarene for fourth place in the GSAC, with a 6-3 conference mark to go with the Cougars’ 18-3 overall record. Hope International drops to 5-8 overall and 2-7 in the GSAC.