AZUSA, Calif. -- Led by junior right side hitter Whittany Radcliffe’s career-high 27 kills, the NAIA’s No. 13-ranked Azusa Pacific twice rallied from a set down and posted a 5-set win (19-25, 25-20, 21-25, 25-20, 15-12) over No. 6 California Baptist Thursday night in the Felix Event Center. The victory was Azusa Pacific’s second 5-set win in just over 48 hours, and it was the third consecutive full-length match the Cougars have played.
“Being in the Golden State Athletic Conference, you can’t focus on the past,” Cougar head coach Chris Keife said. “We aren’t going to be able to focus on tonight. We won and the team played well, but it’s done with. Anytime you focus in on the past, you lose what’s happening in the near future. I told my team they got a great win and did a great job, but we’re going to have to do it all over again on Saturday, and we’ll do it all over again next week and the week after.”
Last Friday, Azusa Pacific lost to Concordia in 5 sets despite holding a 9-4 fifth-set lead, but this time the Cougars seized control of the fifth set with a 5-0 run that erased a 6-4 deficit. Junior right side hitter Krista Brenner’s solo block gave Azusa Pacific the lead for good in the middle of the run, and a point later, freshman middle blocker Christy Cain stuffed another California Baptist attack to give the Cougars a 9-6 lead.
“We all learned from (the Concordia loss),” Radcliffe said. “Tonight I was thinking about how horrible it felt to lose, and I didn’t want to cry after this game. Everyone on our team knew we lost to Concordia when we should have won, so we knew we had to win this one. We don’t work this hard to go to the fifth game and lose.”
Another 3-point burst that included a Radcliffe kill pushed the lead to 13-8, and a California Baptist serve that missed the back line by inches pushed the Cougars to match point with a 14-10 lead. Dragovic and Ingrid Carmona put down kills to pull the Lancers to within 14-12, but sophomore outside hitter Lenna Madden gave junior setter Raechel Jones a solid pass off the Lancer serve, and Radcliffe put away her final kill of the match for the 15-12 win that completed the upset.
“We had to work really hard for this win,” said Radcliffe, who has posted 20-plus kills in 3 straight matches. “Usually, we tend to push pretty hard and hit a plateau, but in this game I felt like we kept pushing and kept pushing, and that kept the pressure on their side.”
Making the win even more improbable was California Baptist’s recent domination of the series between the programs, with the Lancers winning 13 of the last 14 meetings. The lone Azusa Pacific win in that stretch prior to Thursday’s upset was a 5-set victory at home in 2008.
Considering that history, combined with the short turnaround from an energy-zapping 5-set road win at Westmont 2 nights prior, it was no surprise that a California Baptist squad with 4 days of rest between matches was able to put away the opening set with ease. The Cougars hit for a negative attack percentage in the 25-19 opening-set defeat, but the offense woke up in a hurry, notching 20 kills in a 25-20 second-set win that tied the match. Radcliffe had 10 of Azusa Pacific’s 20 kills in the second set.
“I would definitely have liked to have that rest for our team, both physically and emotionally,” Keife said. “After going to 5 sets 2 nights ago, I was a little bit afraid of seeing a letdown tonight, but the best thing I see from these last 3 matches is that our team doesn’t give up.”
The pivotal third set foreshadowed what was to come, with the Cougars rallying all the way back from 3 different 4-point deficits in the set. A 9-5 California Baptist lead was erased with a 5-1 run that featured 2 Brenner blocks, and the Cougars reeled off 4 straight points from a 17-13 deficit to knot the score at 17-17 on Madden’s solo block of a Linjun Ji attack. Ji responded with back-to-back kills in a 4-point Lancer run, but Brenner put away 4 straight kills to draw the Cougars even once more at 21-21. California Baptist finished off the set with another 4-point run, thanks to 3 Jelena Dragovic kills, giving the Lancers a 2-1 sets lead heading into the fourth set.
“I know if we’re down 2-1 or 2-0, I can just tell the team to get comfortable and get it to 5 sets,” Keife said. “I think we’re comfortable in that situation. It’s the experience of being there and doing it before, and I know the team has the confidence for it.”
A Bree Rauschenbach kill gave California Baptist a 15-12 lead in set 4, but freshman defensive specialist Nicole Sepulveda capped a 7-1 run with back-to-back service aces that helped the Cougars take a 19-16 advantage. The Lancers did nothing more than side out the rest of the set, and Azusa Pacific closed out the 25-20 fourth-set win with a solo block from the 6-foot-4 Cain followed by Radcliffe’s 21st kill of the match.
California Baptist seemingly controlled play at the net with 17 blocks in the first 4 sets, but the Cougars got the better end of the blocking in the final set with Brenner’s and Cain’s solo stuffs to just 1 fifth-set Lancer block.
Brenner finished with 17 kills, her career-high, and freshman outside hitter Jackie Landersjoined Brenner and Radcliffe in double figures with 12 kills. Brenner, Radcliffe, and Cain each posted 3 blocks, while junior middle blocker Ariel Beetstrawas the Cougars’ blocking leader with 5 blocks.
“Krista did a great job with a high number of kills and a good percentage, but I thought where she did a really nice job was defending and blocking for us,” Keife said. :That really helped our defense line up around her, and I thought she slowed some of our league’s great hitters down a little bit.”
Azusa Pacific also had 3 players reach double-digits in digs, led by junior libero Robin Portela’s match-high 18. Jones added 15 dig along with a team-high 33 assists, and senior defensive specialist Julia Wehsener contributed 13 digs along with a service ace.
“Our growth so far into the second round (of GSAC) is evident in the little things,” Keife said. “Our block is a little bit better, our serve receive was pretty good tonight, and I think a lot of players are stepping up in some roles they’ve never done before. I’m proud that they’re playing at this type of level.”
California Baptist was led by Carmona’s 16 kills, while Dragovic and Rauschenbach added 12 kills each. Dragovic registered a match-high 9 blocks, including 3 solo blocks in the fourth set alone. Jessica Kalama tallied 9 kills with 6 blocks and a team-high 15 digs. The Lancers, who opened the season with a program-record 18-match win streak, have now dropped 3 of 6 to fall to 21-3 on the year.
The Cougar victory broke a fourth-place tie with Concordia in the Golden State Athletic Conference standings, with Concordia set to visit No. 3 Biola this Saturday while Azusa Pacific hosts a non-conference opponent, No. 8 Taylor (Ind.), at 3 p.m. in the Felix Event Center. The Cougars are now 8-4 in the GSAC, splitting the difference in a 1-game margin between third-place California Baptist (8-3 GSAC) and Concordia (7-4 GSAC). Azusa Pacific’s 20-4 overall record gives the program an unprecedented seventh consecutive 20-win season.