AZUSA, Calif. -- The NAIA’s No. 8-ranked Azusa Pacific honored its only senior, defensive specialist Julia Wehsener, prior to Tuesday’s match with Hope International, and Wehsener made it a night to remember with a career-high 22 digs in a 3-set sweep over the Royals that took just 64 minutes to complete.
“This was a nice way to go out, with a good win in my last game on this court,” Wehsener said. “I think tonight’s performance says a lot about how dedicated my teammates are and how hard everybody has worked so the team can be successful.”
Wehsener’s previous career-high dig total in a match was 18, set in her 2009 junior season in a 5-set road win over Point Loma Nazarene, and she matched that total with 9 digs in each of the first 2 sets of Tuesday’s 25-16, 25-16, 25-9 victory. She added 4 more in the third set as the Cougar offense converted over half of its attacks (36) into kills (20) for an eye-popping .528 third-set attack percentage.
“I thought she played great tonight,” Cougar head coach Chris Keife said. “She did a great job serving for us and she brought a lot of energy to the floor. She defended really well for us, and you could see that directly helped our overall game tonight.”
Wehsener, who ranks second on the team in digs this year behind junior libero Robin Portela, recorded the highest single-match dig total of the season by any player other than Portela, and her 22 digs in 3 sets bested Portela’s best 3-set total (19) of the year, as well. Two other Cougars reached double figures in digs, with Portela contributing 14 digs and junior middle blocker Amy Alkazin posting an impressive 14-kill, 13-dig double-double.
Although the defense stole the show behind several acrobatic saves to extend rallies, the Cougar offense went from good to great to unstoppable through each of the 3 sets. A trio of Azusa Pacific hitters was error-free with at least 12 attempts, led by Alkazin’s 14-kill performance with no errors on 30 attempts. Freshman Jackie Landers tallied 8 kills without an error in 26 attempts, and junior outside hitter Brittany Best tallied 6 kills and no errors in 12 attempts.
Junior right side hitter Whittany Radcliffe hit for a solid .263 percentage, notching another team-high in kills with 15, with 13 coming in the second and third sets. Juniors Ariel Beetstra and Krista Brenner added 5 kills and 2 blocks each, while Alkazin had a hand in a team-high 4 of the Cougars’ 6 team blocks.
Hope International enjoyed a pair of 2-point leads early in the opening set, but Radcliffe and Alkazin teamed for a block that broke an 11-all tie and gave Azusa Pacific the lead for good. The Cougars still led by only a point at 17-16 when Landers recorded 4 kills and Alkazin tossed in a pair of blocks to spark an 8-0 run that closed out the set.
“I felt that a lot of how we played tonight stemmed from going into the final week of conference play,” Keife said. “The team knows that it’s time to take care of business. Coming off a tough 5-set win on the road against The Master’s, I think they were ready to move on, put that performance in the past and come out to play how the way we should.”
Azusa Pacific never trailed again, jumping out to a 9-3 second-set lead before putting the set away with 10 of the final 16 points of another 25-16 win. The Cougars built on its late second-set momentum with a 10-3 burst to open the third set, and Radcliffe led the way with 7 kills without an error in the team’s nearly-flawless 20-kill, 1-error third set. Alkazin had 5 kills in the set, one of which sparked a 10-2 run that ended the match with a 25-9 set victory.
The win also marked Azusa Pacific’s 100th victory over the span of Wehsener’s 4-year career, the first time in program history that the Cougars have garnered 100 wins over 4 consecutive winning campaigns.
“Julia has been a big part of the program’s success, and it’s been fun to see her grow incrementally each year and develop into the solid back row player that we’ve needed,” Keife said. “She’s been in the program for 4 years, and as a 2-year captain she knows exactly what I expect as a coach in how to get the players ready to compete and how to get mentally focused. She’s a great leader who has earned the trust of the coaching staff.”
Wehsener is the only player in program history to be involved with such a 4-year run, and she and the Cougars are now within striking distance of another program milestone – a 30-win season. The victory puts Azusa Pacific’s overall record at 26-6, just 4 wins away from doing what no Cougar team has done since the 1991 Cougars posted a 34-8 campaign that ended in the NAIA quarterfinals. The only other team to reach 30 wins was the 1980 NAIA championship team that went 43-8.
“As fun as tonight was, I’m even more excited to see what we can do with the rest of our season,” Wehsener said. “We felt like we let our last match go to 5 sets (against The Master’s), so we felt that it was important to set the tone in this match and show that we are ranked where we should be.”
The Cougars wrap up the regular season Saturday night with a visit to the No. 11-ranked Concordia squad that handed Azusa Pacific its only 5-set defeat over the past 2 seasons when the teams first met in Azusa Oct. 8. The teams enter the regular-season finale tied for fourth in the GSAC, with Saturday’s clash factoring into the teams’ national tournament seeding.
Hope International, which drops to 6-18 overall and 3-16 GSAC, had no players reach double figures in kills, with Sine Schirmer registering a team-high 7 kills. Libero Jocelyn Moya was the Royals’ digs leader with 20, and Christina Richards tallied 4 blocks.