SIOUX CITY, Iowa -- If it goes to 5, the Cougars will be alive … or so they’ve come to firmly believe.
For the tenth time this season Azusa Pacific took a match to 5 sets, and for the ninth time the Cougars won, which is rather important to them at this juncture of the season. The NAIA’s No. 8-ranked Azusa Pacific defeated No. 19 Rocky Mountain College, 25-23, 23-25, 25-21, 22-25, and 15-12, Tuesday afternoon during pool play in the opening day of the 31st Annual NAIA Volleyball Championship Tournament in Sioux City, Iowa.
All-Golden State Athletic Conference juniors Whittany Radcliffe and Amy Alkazin, both of whom have plenty of NAIA Tournament experience, combined for 38 of Azusa Pacific’s 76 kills to lead the Cougars’ to yet another nail-biting victory.
“It wasn’t pretty, but we got the win,” said Alkazin, who was appearing in the tenth NAIA Tournament match of her career. “We got the jitters out and are ready to compete from here on out.”
It was clear from the opening set that this was not the same set of Cougars who had a razor-sharp edge to their play at the close of the regular season. Against Rocky Mountain they struggled to pass, set and attack with any resemblance of consistency throughout the entire match. Nonetheless, Radcliffe and Alkazin rose to the occasion to help the Cougars avert the upset and fall into a serious hole in the early days of pool play.
“It’s a good win, but you could tell that it’s been 3 weeks since we played competitively,” said Azusa Pacific Head Coach Chris Keife. “We were timid and out of rhythm. We had to get the nerves out, and a 5-set match is a great way to get that done.”
Azusa Pacific was teetering on the brink of defeat, down 9-7 in the fifth set when Jackie Landers acted like anything but the rookie that she is. The 5-foot-11 freshman cranked 2 of her 16 kills at crucial moments to spark an 8-3 Cougar run, capped by Radcliffe’s match-high 26th kill that clinched the victory.
“Fifth sets can be pretty nerve-wracking on players and coaches, particularly in a national tournament,” said Keife, “but we’re pretty comfortable with them. We’ve played a lot of them, and have had a lot of success in 5-setters.”
Indeed, Azusa Pacific has won 15 of its past 16 five-set matches over the past 2 seasons.
Led by juniors Krista Brenner and Robin Portela, Azusa Pacific held Rocky’s all-conference hitter Sara Brunner in check, limiting the Canadian native to just 14 kills and an .093 attack percentage. Portela registered a season-high 39 digs, while Brenner had a hand in 6 of the Cougars’ 11 blocks.
The Cougars endured several precarious moments in the match, and in hindsight, none may have been bigger than in the opening set when Azusa Pacific trailed 21-17. At that moment, Brenner and freshman Christy Cain stuffed a Brunner attack to stop an 8-1 Rocky run. In turn the Cougars answered with a run of their own, highlight by 3 straight Radcliffe kills that gave the Cougars a 25-23 win.
“We gave up too many runs in this match,” said Keife, “but we battled and came up big when our backs were to the wall.”
In the third set Azusa Pacific let a late 3-point lead slip away, but a pair of Brenner kills sandwiched around 2 Sophie Burns’ service aces were part of a 6-0 Cougar run to finish the set and allow Azusa Pacific to move out to a 2-1 overall lead in the match.
In the fourth set the Battlin’ Bears pulled away from a 21-all tie to set up the fifth and deciding set.
“We were out of sync today, but given the time lapse in play it’s understandable,” said Keife. “I think we got the nerves worked out, and a long match like this allows to get used to the building, the crowd, the whole surroundings. Hopefully, we get rolling tomorrow.”
With the victory Azusa Pacific improves to 28-6. Rocky Mountain falls to 24-8.
The Cougars continue pool play Wednesday (Dec. 1) at 3:15 p.m. (CST) against Oklahoma City University (23-12), a 3-set loser to Columbia College earlier today in pool play.