AZUSA, Calif. -- It might not have been the cleanest match of volleyball Azusa Pacific has played this season, but the Cougars’ three-set sweep (25-22, 25-21, 35-33) over Westmont College was a win they definitely needed.
With the Tuesday night victory, the NAIA’s No. 6-ranked Cougars clinched a second-place finish in the Golden State Athletic Conference, the program’s highest finish since a runner-up campaign in 1994, along with a nearly-certain Opening Round bye that will put them directly through to the 24-team NAIA Volleyball National Championship final site.
It was a night of slow starts for both teams. Azusa Pacific started off the match by spotting the Warriors a 9-1 run before starting their comeback midway through the first set to eventually win the opening set, 25-22.
“I really wanted to win, and everyone else did, too,” sophomore outside hitter Jackie Landers said. “It was kind of a grind the entire match, but we all really wanted it.”
Landers finished off the night with a match-high 22 kills on 49 attacks, tying her career-high in kills while adding three blocks and a pair of digs. Her kill total was at least twice that of any other player in the match, with Westmont’s kill leader Kayta Goyich registering 11 kills to lead the Warriors, who had won five of their last seven entering the match, including wins over No. 11 Fresno Pacific and No. 13 Biola.
The Cougars opened the second set with a run of their own, scoring the first 11 points of the set with Landers and senior right side hitter Whittany Radcliffe combining for seven of the 11 points in the run. Westmont pushed back in the latter half of the game, but Azusa Pacific retained the lead and closed out the set, 25-21.
The third set was the ninth time a set involving the Cougars has required the winner to score more than 25 points, and it was the highest-scoring set on the year for Azusa Pacific. Both teams had seven set-point opportunities before the Cougars capitalized on their eighth set point for the 35-33 victory. Senior libero Robin Portela added nine digs in the set to finish with 23 on the night, while Landers posted nine of her kills in the set. Fittingly, it was Landers who put away the last ball from senior setter Raechel Jones’ cross-court set to win the match.
The last time the Cougars played a set with so many points was in 2007, when college volleyball used the 30-point rally scoring system. In the 2007 season opener against Southern Oregon, Azusa Pacific lost a 46-44 set and went on to lose the match in five sets.
Azusa Pacific definitely didn’t play its best match of the year, hitting below .200 and 18 attack errors, but the victory came against a Westmont squad that had defeated Biola in five sets both times those teams had played and had also been able to knock off Fresno Pacific just a week earlier.
“A win’s a win, and they’re all big,” Cougar head coach Chris Keife said. “Westmont is a good team, and we knew we had to come out firing on all cylinders in order to get that win.”
With only two matches left before national tournament play, Azusa Pacific wraps up regular season play with the GSAC finale at Hope International on Friday, Nov. 11 in Fullerton before returning home next Tuesday, Nov. 15, to host former GSAC and future Pacific West Conference rival California Baptist in a non-conference matchup.