SIOUX CITY, Iowa -- If they know the secret, they certainly aren’t ready to share it.
For the third time in four matches at the 2011 NAIA Volleyball National Championship, Azusa Pacific posted a five-set win, using a 29-27, 29-27, 22-25, 26-28, 15-8 win over Lewis-Clark State (Idaho)to earn a 5 p.m. (CST) quarterfinals matchup with top-seeded Concordia, which won both of the regular-season meetings between the Golden State Athletic Conference rivals.
Over the past three seasons, the Cougars are 23-3 in five-set matches, and all five of its NAIA Tournament wins the past two years have been five-set affairs.
“I would say there’s nothing magical about it, but it becomes magical because it just keeps happening,” Cougar head coach Chris Keife said. “It’s unbelievable that it’s sustainable for some reason. I wish I had the answer because I’d sell it.”
There must be some secret ingredient or magic formula that provides an advantage to Azusa Pacific in a fifth set, and while those inside the program acknowledge some difference in that situation, there isn’t a person who can identify exactly where that extra boost of confidence originates.
“I have no idea, but it’s been a trend the last three years, and now there’s just a level of confidence that comes in the fifth set that is undeniable,” explained senior middle blocker Amy Alkazin. “We get in there, and there’s no stopping us. I won’t say that I know what it is, because I don’t want it to change, but there is a level of something that you feel going into the huddle. It’s not something you try to block out, and it’s not something anybody really talks about; it’s just there, and you know it’s going to be over.”
Yet here stands Azusa Pacific, winner of 23 of its 26 five-set matches over the past three seasons, at the doorstep of producing what could be the program’s deepest national tournament run since winning the inaugural NAIA championship over 30 years ago, and doing so in thrilling five-set fashion.
“The fifth set is the final chance to get everyone on the same page,” senior right side hitter Whittany Radcliffe said. “I feel like the fifth game is where we show our true heart.”
Along the way, the Cougars provided one of the most memorable national tournament matches the program had ever seen in Friday’s playoff-round matchup with Lewis-Clark State. It was the third consecutive year the programs met in NAIA Tournament play, including a playoff-round meeting that ended Azusa Pacific’s 2010 campaign last year.
“All the seniors knew how bad it hurt last year when they ripped our hearts out,” Radcliffe recalled. “We knew we couldn’t let them get any momentum going. It was so important to get those first two sets, and it was really nice to come out strong for once.”
Radcliffe and sophomore outside hitter Jackie Landers combined for 45 of Azusa Pacific's 72 kills, and the Cougars' setting trio of Raechel Jones, Sophie Burns, and Breezy Funk had the offense firing on all cylinders, converting for 72 kills and a .238 attack percentage less than 24 hours after it sputtered in a three-set loss to Rocky Mountain to close out pool play.
In the fifth set, the Cougars executed flawlessly, notching six kills without an error in 14 attempts. Azusa Pacific jumped out to a 7-0 lead in the set, taking over after a Lewis-Clark State service error with three consecutive kills, two blocks, and a Jones ace. After a service error, the Cougars scored four of the next five, as well, for a commanding 11-2 lead. Graybeal recorded three kills in a four-point run that closed the gap to 13-7, but senior middle blocker Amy Alkazin and Landers recorded kills to side out the match with a 15-8 win.
“Today in the fifth set, it was evident that we served tough,” Radcliffe said. “We needed to fight for that ace, because when we serve like that, we’re unstoppable. If we serve tough, we know exactly where that set is going, and that makes it so easy to set up our block.”
Graybeal finished with a match-high 25 kills for Lewis-Clark State, and she had a hand in nine of the Warriors’ 12 blocks in the match. Azusa Pacific countered with a pair of 20-kill performances from Radcliffe (24 kills) and Landers (21 kills). The Cougar middles were also impressive, with Alkazin registering nine kills, 14 digs, and three blocks while sophomore Christy Cain collected eight kills and a team-high six blocks.
Jones was the assists leader among Azusa Pacific’s three setters, recording 35 assists along with 13 digs. Senior libero Robin Portela led the Cougar defense with 15 digs. Fourteen players saw action during the match, including two who had not made appearances in pool play.
“With all the depth we have on the bench, we were able to make some changes when we were struggling in some of our rotations,” Keife said. “We needed to try some different things to get to our strengths offensively and defensively, because this is it.”
Azusa Pacific seemed to be headed to a relatively easy opening-set win, taking a 20-14 lead before Lewis-Clark State used five blocks to key a 10-1 run that put the Cougars into a 24-21 deficit. However, Krista Brenner kept her team alive with a kill and a block, and a Landers kill tied the set at 24-24. Azusa Pacific scored the next point on a Lewis-Clark State hitting error, and Radcliffe finished off the set a few points later with back-to-back kills for the 29-27 win.
The second set featured another furious Lewis-Clark State rally once Azusa Pacific reached 20 points. The Cougars, who had just taken a 20-15 lead on a Warriors service error, surrendered five straight points all on errors ranging from serving to hitting to receiving until a Landers kill temporarily halted the run and pushed Azusa Pacific back in front, 21-20. From there, the score was tied at every point the rest of the way, and the lead changed hands four more times before freshman outside hitter Hayley Beetstra recorded her first national tournament kill to tie the set at 27-27 and spark a three-point burst to another 29-27 win.
“Hayley made a big kill right off the bat, and that was huge for her to come off the bench for the first time and make that play,” Keife said. “We needed girls to go in and make a play, and it happened multiple times out there today. Those are the things we needed at each of those moments, and it’s fun to see little things come together to work positively.”
Lewis-Clark State rallied from an early 3-0 deficit with four straight points to take the lead in the third set, and the Warriors never trailed again in the set as they stayed alive with a 25-22 win in the third set. Late in the fourth set, sophomore middle blocker Christy Cain’s kill and block set the Cougars up with consecutive match points at 24-22, but Kelli Tikker and Nicole Graybeal salvaged the Warriors’ tournament life with consecutive kills that extended the fourth set beyond 25 points. The Cougars had two more chances to end the match in that set, leading at 25-24 and 26-25, but another Graybeal kill finished off a 28-26 win that sent the match to the fifth set.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 31-7 overall heading into Friday evening’s quarterfinals, while Lewis-Clark State finishes the season with a 23-6 record. The victory was also the 200th win at Azusa Pacific for head coach Chris Keife, whose 220-102 career record includes one 20-win season at Hope International in 2003 before he took over the program at Azusa Pacific.