AZUSA, Calif. -- The NAIA's No. 6-ranked Azusa Pacific closed out its regular-season campaign with a five-set win over California Baptist, setting the program's regular-season wins record with Tuesday night's 25-16, 25-20, 29-31, 19-25 15-8 non-conference victory over a surging Lancer program that had won 11 of its past 12.
However, behind sophomore outside hitter Jackie Landers' 21-kill effort, it's the Cougars who will enter the postseason on a tear, winning 14 of its past 16 heading into the two-week break that precedes the 2011 NAIA Volleyball National Championship's final site in Sioux City, Iowa. Azusa Pacific learned Sunday that it has earned an Opening Round bye and will advance directly into pool play at the final site, where the Cougars will be the top-seeded team in one of the six four-team pools.
“Winning 14 of our last 16 is great, and of course the national tournament is about the hot team,” Cougar head coach Chris Keife. “It’s figuring out the team that’s going to be able to go through those seven matches and come out on top. It’s exciting that we have the capability to do it, and hopefully we’ll be able to take this momentum through the next two weeks off and find our rhythm early back at nationals.”
Three other Azusa Pacific teams had won 27 regular-season matches, doing so in 1980, 1983, and 1991, but the 2011 edition of the Cougars posted a 28-6 regular season. The 1980 squad ended up setting the program's single-season wins record with a 43-8 campaign that included 10 victories in the NAIA's postseason as the Cougars claimed the association's first-ever volleyball national title, followed by another six wins in a runner-up performance at the AIAW Championship that took place three weeks after the NAIA's tourmament. Only one other team has even posted 30 wins, the 1991 Cougars, who went 34-8 and also notched 27 regular-season victories before winning seven more in NAIA postseason competition.
“I don’t really pay attention to the records, but 28 wins in the regular season is a great thing,” Keife said. “Our girls have fought hard and practiced hard all year, and we’re a mature team with a lot of experience on the court. They’ve put the time and effort in to be able to have the opportunity to get to 28 wins.”
Senior right side hitter Whittany Radcliffe tallied 19 kills, and senior outside hitter Marguerite Hanna registered 16 kills for the Cougars. who out-hit California Baptist by 40 percentage points (.223 to .183). Four players racked up double-digit digs for Azusa Pacific, including the program's career and single-season digs record holder, senior libero Robin Portela. Her 15-dig performance pushed her season dig total to 673, extending her program-record past the 606-dig mark she had a year ago. Senior middle blocker also collected 15 digs, and she registered a team-high six blocks.
“Since the beginning, it’s been a journey and a system,” Portela said. “It’s been a collaborative, step-by-step process, and I think this record is a tribute to the hard work and the steps we’ve taken to get to where we are today.”
In all, Azusa Pacific registered 94 digs, its fifth-highest single-match dig total of the year and the seventh time this season the Cougars have finished with 90-plus digs in a match. Four players were in double figures, including both of the team’s setters. Sophie Burns had the team-high with 19 digs to go with 25 assists, and senior setter Raechel Jones notched 11 digs with a 26-assist performance.
“Any night we have a bunch of digs, that’s only because our block is doing something right,” Portela said. “A lot of people think that actually blocking the ball makes you a good blocking team, but sometimes the best blocking teams don’t touch the ball at all. That’s a part of our game that’s been elevated this year tremendously, and we’ve gotten so much help up front from the block that our defense has just followed suit.”
Azusa Pacific had three chances to put the match away in three sets, taking several one-point leads late in an entertaining, back-and-forth third set that featured eight lead changes and 18 tie scores in the set. California Baptist kept its hopes alive with the 31-29 third-set win, then sent the match to five sets by winning the fourth set, as well, 25-19.
“Our biggest trial right now, and what separates us from reaching our full potential, is just getting to that last bit of the year and closing out,” Portela said. “We have all the skill and cohesiveness you could ever ask for from playing together for so long, but that’s where we need to use these next two weeks to really fine tune and work on that aspect of our game. That’s what’s going to make or break us.”
The Cougars served a pair of aces in the fifth set, and Landers tallied four of her 21 kills in the match-clinching 15-8 fifth set.
“I think we’ve gotten comfortable and found a good rhythm,” Keife said. “We know our weaknesses and our strengths, and we’re playing a lot more towards those. That’s something that comes from the girls and all the work they’ve put in for the last four years.”
California Baptist was led by Ingrid Carmona, who finished with a match-high 23 kills but needed 70 attempts to do so. Carmona also paced the Lancers defense, tying teammate Jessica Kalama for the match-high with 23 digs apiece. Jelena Dragovic was the only other California Baptist hitter with more than seven kills, finishing with 18 kills to go with a match-high eight blocks.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 28-6 overall, while California Baptist, which hosts a National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA) regional championship match later this week, falls to 19-10 on the season.