AZUSA, Calif.-- In 2011 the Azusa Pacific women’s volleyball team had one if its best seasons in years, winning 31 matches while reaching the NAIA quarterfinals. Those Cougars were led by a group of seven seniors that developed into one of the best senior class’ in head coach Chris Keife’s time at Azusa Pacific.
In 2012 the Cougars bring back just three seniors, and welcome a recruiting class that features six freshmen and one junior college transfer. Needless to say, this edition of Azusa Pacific will have a different feel than did the experience laden squad a year ago.
“It’s very different. We almost have to go backwards from where we were. Losing so many seniors...they knew what to expect with the ins and outs of the daily routine. Now with so many new faces you have to start the process over. It’ll be a learning process all season,” said Keife.
But even with the overall youthfulness of the team, senior leadership isn’t an issue. Sophie Burns leads the group, coming back for her fourth year in the program after spending the last three as a starter. Nicole Sepulveda appeared in 32 matches in 2011, while Breezy Funk brings a wide array of skills to the court.
“Sophie has been a three-year starter, setting for us for three years and has done a nice job in our offense. Nicole did a good job last year contributing to the defensive side of the game. And Breezy has played wherever we’ve need her. They’ve all been selfless, and do a lot of things behind the scenes for us leadership wise,” said Keife.
This season not only marks a bit of a new beginning in relation to the roster, but to the schedule as well. 2012 will be the inaugural season of Pacific West play after the Cougars spent the past few decades as members of the NAIA’s toughest volleyball league: the Golden State Athletic Conference. The PacWest is a burgeoning 14-team NCAA Div. II conference that spans three time zones and four states. How Azusa Pacific performs at the next level will largely depend on how soon the team can gel.
Hitting The Mark
In 2011 Jackie Landers led a loaded Cougar squad in kills, tallying 455 in her sophomore season. She started in all 39 matches for Azusa Pacific, finishing with a .241 kill percentage, while averaging over three kills per game. This year she comes in as the team’s top outside hitter, combining for more kills last season than the rest of the returners combined (455-327).
“Jackie is going to take a load off of the newcomers. She’s been really good for us this preseason, and I’m happy to see her take more of a leadership role,” said Keife.
And while Landers brings a proven punch on the outside, the team will need to find a way to replace a trio of seniors that each registered 270+ kills in 2011. Freshman Joy Reinke and sophomore Hayley Beetstra should help fill some of the void. Beetstra finished sixth on the team in kills as a freshman, registering 34 kills in 21 matches. Reinke, a strong all-around player that comes from a successful high school program at Tri City Christian, has looked prime to make an impact in her first collegiate season.
Cori Esparza should see time as an outside hitter, but will also be a vital defensive piece for the Cougars. Another key part of the attack will be freshman Mattie Shelford, who packs a strong punch and impressive athleticism. Add those two to sophomore right-side hitter Lauren Sutton and you can see just how deep the Cougars are.
With six players standing at six-feet or taller, the Cougars are in great shape at the net. Led by 6-4 middle blocker Christy Cain and 6-2 freshman Ashley Vander Tuig Azusa Pacific’s blocking will be one of the team’s clear strengths.
Last year Cain led Azusa Pacific with 136 blocks while adding 232 kills. Vander Tuig may be a little more of a work in progress, but the coaching staff has been very impressed with what they’ve seen so far.
“With Christy’s height we have an automatic advantage at the net. Ashley is quick, explosive, and long. She has the least amount of experience, but so much upside,” said Keife.
Azusa Pacific also added 6-1 transfer Lauren Edwards, who will play on the outside and in the middle. Edwards, an All-South Coast Conference player at El Camino College in 2011, had 71 blocks and 225 kills with an impressive .380 attack percentage last year.
Setting The Table
With 1,576 career assists, senior setter Burns ranks eighth on the all-time assists list at Azusa Pacific. In 2011 she ended the season second on the team in assists (664) and third in service aces (27) and digs (314). This year she comes in with three years of experience in Keife’s system, and is prepared for her best year yet, which should bode well for the team, considering no returner had more than 100 assists last season.
Playing alongside Burns will be Funk, whose role on the court will be varied, but will undoubtedly include time setting the table for the Cougar hitters. In her junior year Funk had 96 assists and 80 digs. Also entering the mix will be freshman Tristan Racich, who brings a high volleyball IQ and an especially strong amount of leadership.
Defensive Difference Makers
In 2011 Robin Portela broke the school’s all-time digs record as the team’s primary libero. This season senior Sepulveda will take over that role as the Cougars’ defensive specialist. Sepulveda registered 164 digs last year, to go with 252 serve receptions. She ended the season with a .905 serve reception percentage and 10 aces.
Newcomer Ashley Swatek is expected to make impression from the get-go. She’s an energetic, consistent defender that’s brought a strong, positive attitude in her first camp with the program.
Prepared For The Change
Last season the Cougars played a trio of NCAA Div. II programs in preparation for Azusa Pacific’s move to Div. II. They went 1-2 in the three matches, topping 17th ranked Emporia State (Mo.) after a tough 3-1 loss to No. 8 Central Missouri.
“We played Div. II schools last year to gauge the level that we needed to know. We planned last year’s trip to prepare for this year. In the PacWest there are some very good teams and it’s going to be a battle. But, with everyone being so new it’s a very open league,” said Keife.
Joining The PacWest
Azusa Pacific enters the PacWest in 2012, projected to finish seventh in the preseason poll . The Cougars will host 10 conference matches, beginning on Sept. 11, when they welcome California Baptist to the Felix Event Center for the season opener, unveiling the new look of home matches for Azusa Pacific volleyball.
The Cougars will play three teams they’ve never faced before in Dixie State (Utah), Chaminade (Hawaii), and Academy of Art University. Unfamiliar programs like BYU-Hawaii, Hawaii Pacific, Dominican, Grand Canyon, and Notre Dame de Namur will be filling the Cougars’ conference schedule, while five programs (Azusa Pacific, California Baptist, Holy Names, Point Loma, and Fresno Pacific) are either in their first or second year in the PacWest.
“Even though everything is so new we’re still preparing the same. It’s new to everyone. It’s new to the opposing teams as well so it’s to no one’s advantage,” said Keife. “We need to learn how to travel well, and focus in more on what we do on our side of the net.”
Quite possibly the biggest challenge on the season is likely the one that the players have highlighted on their calendars. From Oct. 10-15 the Cougars will be in Hawaii for a four-match stint against the four Hawaii schools in the PacWest. The team will travel to Oahu for matches against BYU-Hawaii, Hawaii Pacific, and Chaminade, before flying over to the big island for a contest with Hawaii-Hilo.
“Going to Hawai’I will be new and exciting, but we’re out there to play volleyball first and foremost. We want to be successful. When you go somewhere like Hawaii you automatically think of it as a vacation. We have to make sure that isn’t our mindset,” said Keife. “Juggling volleyball, homework, school, studying, and fun will be really tough. Learning how to balance all of that out will be one of our challenges.”