AZUSA, Calif. -- Chris Keife’s introduction to the world of Golden State Athletic Conference volleyball came as a first-year head coach at Hope International, and it was a three-set defeat against Azusa Pacific at the Felix Event Center.
Eight years and four days later, Keife picked up his 100th career GSAC win, doing so as Azusa Pacific’s head coach in a three-set sweep in this year’s conference opener over the Hope International program that gave him his coaching start back in 2003.
“Again, this milestone caught me off guard,” said Keife, who celebrated his 200th overall coaching win just 11 days earlier. “When it was announced tonight, I was just blown away that it had happened in such a tough conference. We only get an opportunity to play 20 matches a year, and the conference has been so deep, you don’t get all the wins you hope for because other teams come in and steal them.”
Later in that first season at Hope, Keife led the Royals to the program’s first-ever winning season and the school’s first NAIA playoff appearance in any sport. Among his victories that year was a four-set win over Azusa Pacific in the rematch, and he took over the Cougar program in 2004. He hasn’t lost to Hope International since, and a senior-laden Cougar squad ranked No. 3 in the NAIA delivered GSAC win No. 100 for Keife with a resounding 25-9, 25-20, 25-12 win over Hope International.
“This was one of our strongest matches we’ve played all year, regarding how we went about our business, plus our motivation and focus,” Keife said. “A lot of these seniors are three- and four-year starters, and I’ve seen a lot of growth in them as players. They’re buying into everything we’ve been teaching, and the younger players are looking up to them and following in the same direction. They have the whole team on the same page.”
At one point in the first set, the Cougars led by an 18-2 margin, and that was after surrendering the opening point of the match. After bouncing back from a four-point deficit midway through a five-point second-set win, Azusa Pacific jumped out to an early 6-1 lead in the third and scored 15 of the final 20 points to close out the match.
Senior libero Robin Portela’s streak of six consecutive 20-dig matches came to an end, although her match-high 16-dig performance could at least partially be attributed to her match-high five service aces. The Cougars served 11 aces as a team and recorded seven team blocks, all factors in limiting Portela’s defensive opportunities.
The offense converted at an efficient .297 clip, led by the performances of senior right side hitter Whittany Radcliffe, who had 11 kills against just two errors, and sophomore outside hitter Jackie Landers, who registered 10 kills and only one error. Radcliffe started the match with seven kills in the opening set, and Landers tallied nine kills in 11 attempts over the final two sets after taking only two swings in the first set of the match.
Other leading performers from the Cougars’ balanced effort included senior setter Raechel Jones’ 21-assist, 10-dig, two-ace performance, along with five-block efforts from sophomore middle blocker Christy Cain and Radcliffe. Senior middle blocker Amy Alkazin added eight kills and an ace with two blocks.
Naomi Iosia was Hope International’s kills leader with nine, and libero Casey Issenmann tied Portela’s match digs high with 16.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 1-0 in GSAC play, 14-2 overall. Up next for the Cougars is a challenging road trip which has them visiting No. 7-ranked Concordia and defending NAIA champion Fresno Pacific in back-to-back contests.
“Last week was invaluable, and it was exactly what we needed as a team,” said Keife, whose squad suffered its first losses of the year against a pair of NCAA Div. II top-ten programs at last weekend’s Central Missouri tournament. “We need to lose, and I say that honestly because we needed to see what our strengths and weaknesses were, and that’s exactly what it showed us out there.”
The next Azusa Pacific home match comes on Saturday, Sept. 24, a 3 p.m. matchup with No. 5-ranked Point Loma Nazarene.