SIOUX CITY, Iowa -- For the second straight day, Azusa Pacific needed five sets to post a pool play win, and the NAIA's No. 6-ranked Cougars improved to 2-0 in the pool with Wednesday's 25-17, 21-25, 25-17, 21-25, 15- victory over No. 17 Taylor (Ind.) at the 2011 NAIA Volleyball National Championship.
Sophomore outside hitter Jackie Landers led a balanced, efficient Cougar attack with a career-high 23 kills, and senior right side hitter Whittany Radcliffe was practically unstoppable, registering 18 kills with just two errors in 32 attempts for a .500 attack percentage. Three others collected at least eight kills, and senior libero Robin Portela led the way defensively with a match-high 20 digs, her second consecutive 20-dig effort.
“Tonight was probably our best offensive output we’ve had in a long time,” Cougar head coach Chris Keife said. “To hit 33 percent against a good team is a very good sign.”
Azusa Pacific notched a .335 team hitting percentage, recording 74 kills against just 17 errors in 170 attempts. The Cougars were at their best in the final set, converting 24 attack attempts into 11 kills with just one error.
“We were spreading out the offense, so they had to stay true to everyone,” Radcliffe said. “When one of us was struggling, the other ones would step up with a kill, and that’s how you win a championship.”
The Cougars never trailed in the match, winning the first and third sets before the tie-breaking fifth set, where Taylor won the first point and led 3-2 in the set before Azusa Pacific reeled off four consecutive points that sparked a 12-3 run that set up match point. After hitting into a block that gave Taylor its last lead of the set at 3-2, Radcliffe recorded back-to-back kills that turned Azusa Pacific’s narrow one-point margin into a 6-3 edge. After a Taylor sideout cut the lead to 6-4, Radcliffe picked up her third kill of the set to push the lead to 7-4, and the Cougars led by at least the three-point margin she provided the rest of the match.
“Some teams get tense for the fifth set, but with our team we just have a confidence about playing it,” Radcliffe said. “It’s not fun going to five sets, but we’re comfortable there. We have seven seniors on the team this year, and we’ve gone to five sets so many times that we feel pretty comfortable. We stay calm and know we have to come out strong, and we play with a sense of urgency.”
Since suffering a five-set defeat at Biola Oct. 25, Azusa Pacific has posted an eight-match winning streak, of which the last three contests have all been decided in five sets. In those matches, the average fifth-set score in the Cougar victory has been 15-7. With Wednesday’s win, Azusa Pacific improved to 22-3 in five-set matches over the past three seasons, including a 6-2 mark in 2011. In the process, the Cougars also improved to 30-6 overall, becoming just the third team in program history to post a 30-win campaign.
“(Thirty wins) is not a goal for us,” Keife said. “However, 30wins against the caliber of teams we play in our conference is a good accomplishment. It’s always fun to get the records and milestones, but the more important things are the things yet to come.”
A 15-6 run early in the opening set helped Azusa Pacific post a 25-17 win, and Landers provided three kills in a crucial four-point burst at the end of the run, which gave the Cougars an 18-10 edge. Taylor pulled to within five points at 20-15, but senior middle blocker Amy Alkazin put away three kills to combine with senior right side hitter Krista Brenner for the final five Cougar points in the set victory.
“When I get frustrated and upset, I tend to take it out on the ball,” said Landers, whose previous career-high in kills was 22, which she reached in a five-set win over Emporia State (Kan.) in early September as well as a Nov. 8 three-set sweep over Westmont. “When we hit that fifth set, I just feel a sense of urgency to push through.”
In the second set, Azusa Pacific held a one-point lead (12-11) midway through and was still just a point off the lead as late as 22-21 before Taylor scored three straight, all on kills, for the 25-21 second-set win that evened the match at one set apiece.
The third set featured another push midway through the set, a 6-1 run that quickly turned a 13-11 lead into control of the set with a 19-12 edge. The Cougars pulled away late and closed out another 25-17 set with three straight points. A set later, Azusa Pacific kept itself in striking distance, trailing by just a point as late as 18-17, but Taylor picked up just enough momentum from consecutive points on a missed serve followed by an attack error to collect another 25-21 victory and force the fifth set.
“They sided out very well, and that’s how they were able to maintain the lead in the sets they won,” Keife said. “I thought our serving broke down, and that was the only thing I thought we were weak in tonight. Serving sets up everything defensively, and you could see how we struggled with our blocking and our defense in the sets we lost. It all starts with the serve, and we weren’t aggressive enough in that aspect.”
Nearly half of Azusa Pacific’s 17 attack errors came as a result of the Taylor block, which stuffed eight Cougar attacks. Bethany Beck led the way with a match-high six blocks, and she was one of four Trojans who reached double-figures in kills. However, Taylor was never able to get its offense completely on track, committing 27 attack errors with 62 kills for a .207 match hitting percentage.
With Rocky Mountain’s Pool F victory over Grand View Wednesday night, Azusa Pacific’s spot in the 12-team single-elimination bracket is secure. However, if the Cougars have any shot at getting a playoff-round bye directly into the quarterfinals, they must defeat Rocky Mountain (Mont.) at 5:45 p.m. (CST) Thursday to win Pool F of the 2011 NAIA Voleyball National Championship.
“I’m always happy to be 2-0 at this point,” Keife said. “The outcomes are what they are, and you can’t change what happened.”
Along with a win, Azusa Pacific would need two of the top five tournament seeds to also lose – otherwise, barring upsets, the Cougars would be taking on either the No. 11 or No. 12 seed Friday morning for a right to play in Friday evening’s quarterfinals.