AZUSA, Calif. -- The upset bug weaved its way throughout the first two days of the fourth annual Cougar Classic, but Azusa Pacific got defensive and emerged unscathed with a pair of season-opening wins Friday afternoon.
Rocky Mountain (Mont.) College, ranked No. 18 in the NAIA, posted an upset of a Top 10 foe for the second straight day, following up Thursday’s surprising three-set sweep of No. 9 Concordia with another sweep Friday over No. 5 Biola, which entered the Cougar Classic as the highest-ranked squad.
The Cougars are the tournament’s only other Top-10 team, but they notched a combined 139 digs, averaging nearly one dig per point in three-set victories over Holy Names (27-25, 25-19, 25-21) and Eastern Oregon (25-11, 25-16, 25-18). A dozen players appeared in both of the day’s matches as Azusa Pacific opened a campaign with back-to-back wins for the fourth consecutive season.
“We finished the day on a strong note,” Cougar head coach Chris Keife said. “We accomplished what we wanted today, which was to get a variety of players into the lineup and to play good volleyball, which I really felt we did a better job in our second match.”
Leading the way with a pair of 20-dig efforts was libero Robin Portela, one of seven Cougar seniors who are now 35-9 at home during their career span. Portela, who set the program’s single-season digs mark last year with 607 ups, recorded a match-high 29 digs in the opener to move into fourth on the Cougar career digs chart before following it up with another 21 digs in the Eastern Oregon win.
“We feel like defense can be one of the biggest strengths of our team this year,” Keife said. “Robin’s performance today is an example of that, but overall I was pleased with our entire team defensively. When the defense does its job, it makes it a lot easier to play well in all the other phases of the game, as well.”
Senior setter Raechel Jones was also in double figures in digs in both matches, recording a combined 25 digs to go with her team-high 33 assists on the afternoon. The Cougars surrendered only five aces on the day.
After sophomore outside hitter Jackie Landers led the offense in the opener with 12 kills, senior right side hitter Whittany Radcliffe led Azusa Pacific’s highly-efficient offense against Eastern Oregon with a match-high 15 kills. The Cougars collected 42 kills and committed only four hitting errors against Eastern Oregon, notching a blistering .355 attack percentage.
Holy Names took its largest lead of the opening set at 21-17 and led by three at 23-20, but senior outside hitter Marguerite Hanna’s consecutive kills rallied Azusa Pacific from the Hawks’ set point. Another Hanna kill a few points later started the set-clinching three-point burst, which finished with a block from seniors Amy Alkazin and Ariel Beetstra for the 27-25 win.
Sparked by a pair of Alkazin kills during a 7-2 run midway through the second set, the Cougars posted a 25-19 victory before claiming the match win with a 25-21 third set. Portela had 22 of her 29 digs in the second and third sets, while Landers recorded five kills each in sets two and three.
In the opening set against Eastern Oregon, Alkazin picked up a kill and served to start what nearly became a 10-0 set-ending run. However, after scoring nine in a row to turn a comfortable 15-10 lead into set point at 24-10, the Mountaineers’ Jessica Lea broke up the run with one of her team-high 11 kills. The Cougars scored the set-winner on an Eastern Oregon attack error on the next point for the 25-11 win.
An 8-2 run midway through the second set helped lift Azusa Pacific to a 25-16 win before completing the three-set sweep with a 25-18 third set. Portela tallied seven digs in each of the three sets in the match, finishing with a match-high 21 digs, and Radcliffe provided seven of her match-high 15 kills in a near-perfect second set that saw the Cougars convert for a .444 hitting percentage with 17 kills against only one error in 36 attempts.
Azusa Pacific hosts another pair of matches to conclude Saturday’s Cougar Classic action, taking on Northwest (Wash.) University at 10 a.m., which will be immediately followed by a matchup with Concordia (Ore.) University at noon. Both matches will take place on Court 2, which is located on the west end of the Felix Event Center’s main floor.