WARRENSBURG, Mo. -- The NAIA’s No. 4-ranked Azusa Pacific saw its run for yet another early-season milestone come up a little bit short, as the Cougars were edged in five sets (25-16, 20-25, 14-25, 25-14, 15-10) by NCAA Div. II’s No. 3-ranked Tampa (Fla.) at the Central Missouri-hosted Peggy Margin Challenge Friday night.
The loss ended Azusa Pacific’s bid to set the program record for the longest season-opening win streak, which was snapped at 12 matches for the second consecutive year. Initially overwhelmed by Tampa’s edge in size and athleticism, the Cougars came charging back after dropping the opening set and falling behind in the second, 8-0. After withstanding that initial burst, Azusa Pacific nearly doubled Tampa’s score over the second and third sets, posting a 25-12 edge to close out the second set and notching a 25-14 third-set victory.
“Out of the gate, I could tell our nerves were getting the best of us,” Cougar head coach Chris Keife said. “We struggled to find a good rhythm and Tampa attacked that. I was concerned after the first set how we would respond, but I thought we responded well and kept our poise. We made a few plays that sparked our confidence a little bit, and it turned out to be a great match.”
Tampa opened up the fourth set with an 11-4 run, maintaining at least a six-point advantage the rest of the set to force the decisive fifth set. Again, the Spartans took the early lead in the set, jumping out to a 3-0 lead on kills from three different hitters. With Tampa leading by six points, 11-5, the Cougars made one final run, scoring five in a row to pull within a point at 11-10. However, back-to-back blocks sandwiched between a pair of kills put Azusa Pacific away for the final 15-10 fifth-set tally.
Senior right side hitter Whittany Radcliffe turned in a solid 15-kill, four-block performance, and it wasn’t surprising to see senior libero Robin Portela registering a team-high 23 digs, her 11th match with 20-plus digs in the Cougars’ 13 contests so far. However, it was sophomore outside hitter Jackie Landers who opened some eyes in the Cougars’ high-profile tournament opener as she put away a career-high 17 kills to lead the Azusa Pacific offense.
Landers had six of her kills to lead the second-set comeback from eight points down, and she added three more in the third set and another four kills in the fourth set. She also was a perfect eight-of-eight passing against a tough Tampa serving game.
“I was very impressed with how we competed with a more athletic team than us,” Keife said. “Whoever served tougher and received better ended up winning, and that’s what the whole match came down to. They passed great and served hard in the first game, and we did it in the second and third. It was just a good match all the way around.”
Tampa had four players reach double figures in kills, led by 18 from Danielle Selkridge, and Julie Howlett was the defensive leader with a match-high 31 of the Spartans’ 91 digs in the match. Eva Dupay tallied 15 kills with a match-high five blocks, and Camille Hanks was another 15-kill performer for Tampa.
“Tampa was a very good team, and they will probably be one of the best teams we end up facing all season,” Keife said. “A match like this is exactly what we needed to help us get ready to perform at a high level in our conference.”
Senior setter Raechel Jones had a productive all-around performance for the Cougars, setting the offense with 28 assists to go with 17 digs and two of her team’s three service aces. Although the Cougar middle blockers had a tough time putting away kills against Tampa’s athletic front line, sophomore middle blocker Christy Cain matched up well and produced five blocks with her five kills. Senior middle blocker Amy Alkazin tallied seven kills in only 15 attempts, and she contributed seven digs along with a pair of blocks.
Two of last year’s NCAA Div. II semifinalists (Tampa and Central Missouri) are on the weekend schedule, along with Emporia State (Kan.), which is currently ranked No. 17 nationally. Tampa and Central Missouri are both ranked in the top 10 of the latest Div. II poll, with Tampa, the defending national runner-up, holding down No. 3 while Central Missouri is ranked No. 8.
After the challenging weekend slate, Azusa Pacific returns home next week to kick off Golden State Athletic Conference play when it hosts Hope International on Tuesday, Sept. 13, at 7 p.m.