SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- The NAIA’s No. 8-ranked Azusa Pacific used a tried-and-true formula, albeit a nerve-wracking one, to beat No. 14 Point Loma Nazarene University. The Cougars looked lethargic and uninterested to start the match, losing the first set in quick fashion before roaring back to beat the Sea Lions, 15-25, 25-17, 25-22, 25-23, in a Golden State Athletic Conference match in Golden Gym Saturday afternoon.
The victory is the Cougars’ fifth straight and their third in the past 4 matches over a nationally-ranked team.
The first-set setback seems to be a ploy for the Cougars, who have dropped 6 of 14 first-sets in GSAC play this season. And as they have done so many times before, the Cougars regrouped and systematically put away the opponent the rest of the way.
“You take that first set away, and I think we played pretty well, especially in a difficult place,” said Azusa Pacific Head Coach Chris Keife. “We didn’t do anything differently than just wake up after Point Loma took it to us. They were ready and applied the pressure from the opening serve.”
Juniors Whittany Radcliffe and Amy Alkazin led the Cougars to their seventh victory in the past 8 meetings with Point Loma, combining for 31 of the Cougars 61 kills in the match.
Early on the Sea Lions parlayed Tabitha Henken’s 7 first-set kills in an easy first-set win. Point Loma went on a 12-5 run to put the Cougars in the distance at 21-11. That was more than enough of a cushion as the 2 teams traded points before PLNU took a 1-0 advantage in the match.
The Cougar comeback began with a most unlikely hero, junior hitter Krista Brenner, who has been comfortable playing in the shadows of Radcliffe and Alkazin all season, but she took over the Cougar offense in the second set. Brenner led a highly efficient Cougar attack, helping Azusa Pacific convert 19-of-30 attack attempts with her own 5-of-7 clip. She ignited an 11-3 Cougar run with a kill, added another in the midst of it to keep it going, and was the primary factor Azusa Pacific assumed a comfortable 18-9 advantage. The Cougars cruised the rest of the way to even the match at one set apiece.
“Krista did a really nice job for us in that second set,” added Keife. “She allowed us time to get Whittany and Amy going, and they carried the load the rest of the way.”
With the Sea Lion defense focused on Brenner’s presence, Radcliffe and Alkazin went to work in the third set, combining for 7 of the Cougars’ 16 kills. In addition, Alkazin’s serving kept Point Loma off balance, and she was at the wheel when Azusa Pacific went on a 7-2 run to get back into the set at 17-17. The score was still tied at 22-all when freshman Jackie Landers sandwiched an Akazin kill with a pair of her own for account for 3 straight points and a 2-1 Cougar match lead.
In a tight fourth set, the Sea Lions rallied from 6 down to pull to within one at 20-19. Three straight kills, however, 2 by Radcliffe and another by Alkazin, switched momentum and put Azusa Pacific back in control as another Radcliffe kill, her team-leading 17th of the afternoon, clinched the match victory for Azusa Pacific.
After hitting at paltry .037 (7-for-27 with 6 errors) clip in the opening set, a torrid set of Cougar managed a fine .352 (54-for-108 with 16 errors) pace over the final 3 sets. Alkazin led the way with 14 kills in just 27 attempts against 4 errors (.370) while having a hand in 4 blocks. Brenner finished with 9 kills, while freshman Christy Cain added 7 kills in just 9 attacks.
“We’re playing well right now, probably the best we’ve played all season,” said Keife, “but what is exciting to me as a coach is that I know we haven’t peaked. There are areas of our play we’ll get better in over the next few weeks.”
With the victory, Azusa Pacific improves to 23-4 overall, 10-4 in the GSAC. Point Loma, which was paced by Henkin’s match-high 22 kills, falls to 13-10 overall, 7-7 in the GSAC.