AZUSA, Calif. -- The NAIA's No. 7-ranked Azusa Pacific collected its biggest win of the season Tuesday night, posting its first win over Fresno Pacific since 1994 with a 25-17, 22-25, 25-16, 25-21 Golden State Athletic Conference victory over the No. 8-ranked Sunbirds at the Felix Event Center.
Senior right side hitter Whittany Radcliffe led the way with a match-high 21 kills, while also converting for a match-high .465 hitting percentage to lead the Cougars to the victory that snapped a 41-match losing streak to Fresno Pacific, whose chances at claiming a 12th consecutive GSAC title took a serious hit with Tuesday's loss. The victory was Azusa Pacific’s first-ever over the Sunbirds inside the Felix Event Center, which opened in 2000, and it was the first Cougar home win over Fresno Pacific since 1984, snapping a 25-match home losing streak.
“Fresno Pacific is a quality program, and there’s no question they’re a quality team year in and year out,” Cougar head coach Chris Keife said. “We know that if we even want to have the opportunity to beat them, we have to be at our best, and tonight we were very sharp and disciplined. Our execution gave us the opportunity to win.”
The win also helped Azusa Pacific bounce back from a disappointing four-set loss at home to Concordia just three days prior, a loss that likely ended the Cougars’ GSAC title hopes.
“We had an opportunity slip by on Saturday, and even though Concordia played great and beat us, that’s one opportunity we can’t get back,” Keife said. “We stressed that coming into this next stretch, this gauntlet of teams that’s ahead on our schedule – we need to take care of business and take care of those opportunities that we have left.”
With the victory, Azusa Pacific improves to 21-5 overall, 8-3 GSAC, moving back into a second-place tie with Fresno Pacific in the GSAC standings, three games behind conference leader Concordia, which improved to 11-0 in conference play with a four-set win at Point Loma Nazarene Tuesday. The Sunbirds are now 12-6 overall, 8-3 GSAC.
“The Concordia loss hit us really hard,” Radcliffe said. “We knew how it felt to lose to Concordia and Fresno Pacific back-to-back from earlier this year, and we didn’t want to feel that way again. As a senior-heavy team, we know how hard we need to work. We’ve been in tough situations before, and we know we just have to continue to mature.”
Sophomore outside hitter Jackie Landers added 16 kills, senior libero Robin Portela notched a match-high 21 digs, and senior middle blocker Amy Alkazin tallied 12 kills and 15 digs as Azusa Pacific posted a .280 team attack percentage and out-dug the Sunbirds by a 90-78 margin. Senior setter Raechel Jones registered 26 assists with 13 digs, and fellow setter Sophie Burns was nearly as efficient with 24 assists and 11 digs.
“We worked very hard to learn Fresno Pacific’s game so we could be prepared for this match,” Jones said. “We adjusted our game accordingly, and we all felt very confident. It wasn’t that much of a surprise to us once things started clicking. We knew the importance of this match for the conference race down the stretch, so we really tried to focus on every point with urgency.”
The Cougars never trailed in any of the sets won, seizing the early momentum with a 10-3 run midway through the opening set that turned a 9-8 advantage into a commanding 19-11 margin. The closest Fresno Pacific got in that first set was five points, but Azusa Pacific got a pair of kills from Landers as it closed out the 25-17 win with a 5-2 set-ending run.
The Sunbirds responded with a strong second-set start, scoring the first three points and leading three times by four points in the early stages of the set. The Cougars came back to tie the score six times and briefly regained the lead at 16-15 on another Landers kill, but Fresno Pacific eventually scored consecutive points twice late to break a 19-19 tie and hold on for the 25-22 win.
The rest of the match went exactly as Azusa Pacific wanted, as the Cougars jumped out to a 9-4 lead in the third set. After withstanding a Sunbird surge that shaved the lead down to a point at 11-10, Landers sparked a flurry of three consecutive points that helped close out the set with a 14-6 run for the 25-16 win. In the fourth set, a pair of Landers kills helped turn a 4-4 deadlock into an 8-4 advantage, and Azusa Pacific led by at least two points the rest of the way in a match-clinching 25-21 set victory.
Azusa Pacific’s offense converted at a clip of over .300 in each of the three sets it won, including a blistering .412 percentage in the third set, where Radcliffe and Landers combined for 11 kills without an error. The defense averaged 25 digs per set through the first three sets before adding 15 more in the fourth for a 90-dig total, with five Cougars finishing in double figures in digs.
“It was very fluid tonight, and it really just felt like we clicked,” Jones said. “We’ve played great in other matches this year, but I really saw a difference tonight that gets me excited to see how we’ll do in the matches to come.”
Fresno Pacific was led by reigning GSAC Player of the Year Martina Gregusova, who finished with 18 kills on 58 attack attempts, and she added 15 digs while handling 49 Cougar serves with only one reception error. Kathleen Anderson tallied 16 kills and four blocks, and Jessie Alcorn got into double figures with 10 kills and 11 digs. The Sunbirds were held to an attack percentage under .200 in all four sets, finishing at .156 with offensive totals of 53 kills, 25 errors, and 180 attempts.
Azusa Pacific is back in action for a pair of challenging back-to-back road matches, visiting the NAIA’s No. 17-ranked Point Loma Nazarene on Saturday, Oct. 22, followed by an Oct. 25 visit to No. 14 Biola.