AZUSA, Calif. -- This was NAIA volleyball’s version of “bracket busters,” those midseason, out-of-conference, intersectional contests that can wreak havoc on the best of postseason intentions. And Azusa Pacific did its part.
In a battle of 2 NAIA Top-25 ranked teams, No. 13 Azusa Pacific rallied from a set down, needing some spectacular play late in the match, to come back and beat No. 8 Taylor University, 25-16, 21-25, 24-26, 25-23, 15-10 in a nonconference match Saturday afternoon in the Felix Event Center.
Taylor, which had won 23 of 25 matches in the general vicinity of its Upland, Ind., home prior to making a monstrous 3-day, 3-match trip to Southern California, was on the brink of salvaging its tour through the land of NAIA volleyball kingdom. The Trojans, who were waxed in the opening set before settling their play to take sets 2 and 3, had fashioned a 5-2 run to tie the fourth set at 23-all, putting the Cougars on their collective heels.
With momentum clearly on their side, the Trojans went to Bethany Beck for an attack that was untouched and cutting through the middle of the Cougar defense, headed for the vacant spot on the back line before Cougar setter Rachael Jones made an off-balance, lunging stab at the ball, catching enough of it with her left hand to poke it back up for junior libero Robin Portela to run under and make a terrific pass to Whittany Radcliffe, who put away the ball with her 18th kill of the match. The play sparked a seemingly weary set of Cougars, who went right back to the Portela-Radcliffe combo to finish off the set on the next play and even the match at 2 sets apiece.
From there the Cougars rolled, taking advantage of a tiring Taylor team that was playing its third straight nationally-ranked team in less than 48 hours. Azusa Pacific ran out to a 9-3 lead in the fifth set and cruised on in for its seventh 5-set victory of the season, including the past 3 matches in a row.
Racliffe was the workhorse of the Cougar offense, producing 25 kills in 64 chances, including 4 straight at one point in the fifth set. All-American Amy Alkazin was the efficient Cougar, coming up with 18 kills on a .515 hitting clip. An Alkazin kill put Azusa Pacific up 14-9 in the fourth set, and the Cougars were still up big at 16-10 before the Trojans came roaring back with a 13-6 run that put them in position to take the match.
Ignited by Jones’ play, Azusa Pacific put the brakes on the Trojan run with an offensive onslaught of their own. The Cougars scored on 16 of their final 26 attack attempts of the match, fashioning an impressive .538 hitting percentage to produce their second win over a Top-10 ranked team in 3 days.
“It will be interesting to see what affect this result has on the rankings,” said Azusa Pacific Head Coach Chris Keife, who watched his team take down No. 6 California Baptist in 5 sets Thursday night. “I admire Taylor for its courage to come out here in the middle of the season and take on 3 ranked teams (Biola, Concordia, Azusa Pacific) in 3 days. Not too many other schools, if any in the nation, would be willing to take on that challenge.”
Freshman Jackie Landers aided the Cougar cause with 15 kills, while Portela finished with a match-high 32 digs.
Taylor, which was paced by Kelly Pritchard’s 20 kills, suffers its third straight setback, it’s longest losing streak since 2005, and falls to 23-5. With the victory, Azusa Pacific improves to 21-4 overall, and returns to Golden State Athletic Conference play Tuesday (Oct. 19) against San Diego Christian College at 7 p.m. in the Felix Event Center.