AZUSA, Calif. -- The NAIA’s No. 8-ranked Azusa Pacific found success through its middle blockers early and never let up, posting a 25-17, 25-17, 25-11 sweep over No. 22-ranked Vanguard Tuesday night in the Felix Event Center.
Sophomore middle blocker Christy Cain registered a career-high 14 kills without an error in just 23 attack attempts, hitting a blistering .609 while fellow middle blocker Amy Alkazin hit a season-best .550 with a season-high 13 kills and two errors in only 20 attempts. Cain had seven of her 14 kills in just the final set, breaking her previous career-high of 11 kills, which she had accomplished twice in the three contests leading into Tuesday night.
The performances of the Cougar middles, which rank as the team’s two highest single-match hitting percentages of the season, led Azusa Pacific to the impressive sweep against a ranked opponent who already this year had taken two other top-10 opponents to five sets.
“We expected to have good competition because of Vanguard’s performance against other top teams, so we knew we had to be on top of our game,” Alkazin said. “Our coaches had done a good job scouting Vanguard, and we had a good idea that we might have an advantage in the middle, but we go into every match thinking that we need to be aggressive regardless of the opponent.”
Junior Sophie Burns played as the full-time setter for the third straight match in the absence of senior Raechel Jones, and she orchestrated a balanced offense that featured five hitters with at least 20 attempts.
“I felt much more comfortable playing all the way around the court, because we’ve been training with this rotation in practice for the last week instead of just the one practice we had before Biola last week,” Burns said. “I feel like I’m connecting with the hitters and there’s a better dynamic on the court. By playing all six rotations, I just really have to focus and be more intentional in everything I do to help set up the team.”
Her two outside hitters, Marguerite Hanna and Jackie Landers combined for 14 kills, and senior right side hitter Whittany Radfcliffe registered nine kills, but Burns never forgot about the middles. Either Cain or Alkazin led the team in kills in all three sets, including a third set that saw Cain go a perfect seven-for-seven in kills-to-attempts.
“As the match progressed, we saw that the deep corners were open so we just kept attacking there,” said Cain. “We knew it would be a grind, and this was a match we needed to win. We came out strong and kept up that consistency throughout the match.”
As a team, Azusa Pacific posted its second consecutive team attack percentage over .350, notching 54 kills against only eight errors for a .362 percentage, its fourth-highest of the season.
Alkazin also tallied 16 digs to help lead the defense, which posted 68 digs to Vanguard’s 51. Senior libero Robin Portela finished with 20 digs for her 16th 20-dig performance of the season. Eight of those efforts have come in three-set sweeps.
“We had great digging tonight, and we ended up with a lot of kills off some of Vanguard’s harder attacks,” Cougar head coach Chris Keife said. “Both of our middles did a great job, and Sophie did a nice job giving them the ball. That’s something that those great digs lead to in transition, and the middles were up on time and doing a nice job. We can win a lot of matches when we do that, and it can really wear a team down when you’re able to apply that kind of pressure.”
Despite never scoring more than three consecutive points in the opening set, the Cougars were able to grind out a 13-5 run to open up a nine-point lead at 18-9 en route to the 25-17 opening-set win. It wasn’t until midway through the second set that Azusa Pacific put together its first scoring run of more than three points, tallying five in a row behind a three-kill burst from Hanna that turned a 16-13 edge into the eight points that represented the margin of victory in another 25-17 win.
In the third set, the Cougars used three consecutive Radcliffe kills at the end of another five-point burst that resulted in an early 6-2 lead, and two sets of three consecutive Cain kills made up the bulk of a 12-2 run that gave Azusa Pacific a commanding 21-8 margin. Freshman Hayley Beetstra, who came off the bench for two kills in the final set, served the last of five Cougar aces for match point, clinching the 25-11 third-set win.
“Overall, this was one of the best matches we’ve played all year,” Keife said. “We sided out, we served very aggressively, and we put pressure on them from the opening serve through match point.”
With the win, its fourth straight, the Cougars improve to 18-4 overall and 5-2 in GSAC play, while Vanguard drops to 14-8 overall, 3-4 GSAC. Azusa Pacific is on the road for its next two contests, visiting The Master’s on Saturday, Oct. 8, and Westmont on Tuesday, Oct. 11, before returning home to start the second round of the conference schedule by hosting GSAC-leading Concordia on Saturday, Oct. 15.