SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- Azusa Pacific feels right at home in San Diego.
For the seventh time in its past eight visits to take on Point Loma Nazarene in Golden Gymnasium, the NAIA's No. 7-ranked Cougars have enjoyed their return trip up the Southern California coastline with a victory in hand.
Perhaps none of those rides have felt so sweet as did Saturday's, as the 30-28, 15-25, 25-23, 25-18 win over the No. 17-ranked Sea Lions put the bow on an historic week for Cougar volleyball. After snapping a 41-match losing streak to Fresno Pacific with a four-set home win over the No. 8-ranked Sunbirds four days earlier, the No. 7 Cougars have now won eight of their last nine including five victories over teams currently ranked in the NAIA's top 17.
“The team knows the importance of every match from here on out, and we want to keep things under our control,” Cougar head coach Chris Keife said. “We’re on the road three times in this four-match stretch, and the team knows how big each of these matches is and how important it is to keep our focus.”
Sophomore outside hitter Jackie Landers led the way, posting team-highs in kills (14) and attack percentage (.321) for Azusa Pacific in a match where the Cougars had fewer kills, aces, blocks, and an identical digs total to Point Loma Nazarene. Senior right side hitter Whittany Radcliffe pitched in for 12 kills, and sophomore middle blocker Christy Cain added seven kills with a team-high four blocks.
“Jackie did well tonight, efficiency-wise and kill-wise, and she’s bringing a lot of power,” Keife said. “She’s had a very good week, and I’m proud of her because we were able to count on her when we needed her this week.”
The Cougars were sharp from the outset, registering 19 kills against only four errors in the opening set, although Point Loma led the majority of the period. Azusa Pacific’s first lead came at 20-19, and the Cougars had to fight off consecutive set points to battle back from a 24-22 deficit to knot the score at 24-all. Point Loma never led again in the set despite siding out four straight times to stay alive before Landers and Radcliffe closed out a 30-28 win with back-to-back kills.
Landers had five kills in the opener, while Radcliffe, Cain, and senior middle blocker Amy Alkazin each registered four kills in the first set. In the second set, Azusa Pacific had an early edge with a 6-3 lead but Point Loma promptly tied it with three straight points, and the Sea Lions later snapped a 9-9 tie by closing out the set on a 16-6 run for the 25-15 win that knotted the match at one set apiece.
The third set featured more of the efficient offense from the Cougars’ opening set, with Landers and Radcliffe tallying four kills each without an error in the 25-23 set win. Azusa Pacific spotted the Sea Lions a 7-1 lead before scoring eight of the next 11 to get within a point at 10-9. Point Loma pushed the lead back out to five points (18-13) and still led by three points as late as 20-17, but a service error, a Krista Brenner block, and a Marguerite Hanna ace knotted the score at 20-20. Brenner capped an 8-2 run with a kill that gave the Cougars their first lead of the set, 21-20, and Landers and Radcliffe recorded two kills each to account for all of Azusa Pacific’s scoring down the stretch.
Fourteen Azusa Pacific players saw action in the fourth set after the Cougars jumped out to a commanding 14-3 lead, and Point Loma wasn’t able to get closer than nine points until pulling to within 21-13. The Sea Lions rallied late and got as close as five points (23-18), but consecutive Point Loma attack errors sealed the match with a 25-18 final set. Both teams hit for negative attack percentages in the fourth set, although six of the Cougars’ 10 fourth-set errors came after a 21-9 lead had already been built.
“We should have had more kills and fewer errors, and we trailed for a lot of the first three sets, but we kept plugging away,” Keife said. “We had the majority of our errors at the end, when we were ahead, but I still wouldn’t assume that we would win a set where we hit negative.”
The defense was led by 10-dig performances from junior defensive specialist Nicole Sepulveda and junior setter Sophie Burns.
Point Loma’s top performers were Tabitha Henken (17 kills), Delaney McCraney (15 kills, 14 digs), and Alyssa Dwyer (14 kills, six blocks). Destiny McIntyre also finished with six blocks, helping the Sea Lions to a 13-block effort.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 22-5 overall, 9-3 GSAC, solidifying its position in a tie for second place with Fresno Pacific, which defeated unranked Hope International on the road earlier in the day. Up next is a visit to No. 14-ranked Biola on Tuesday, the 12th top 25-ranked opponent for Azusa Pacific in its past 16 matches.