RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- Although California Baptist spoiled Azusa Pacific's home-opener and later brought an end to the Cougars' eight-match win streak, Azusa Pacific won the one that mattered most, knocking out the defending NCCAA National Champions in the West Region semifinals, Thursday night in the Van Dyne Gym.
Azusa Pacific's two leading hitters, junior Jackie Landers and freshman Joy Reinke, each had double-doubles, as the Cougars prevented a Lancer hat-trick with a four-set victory (25-22, 25-27, 25-19, 25-18). Landers paced the team with 23 kills, 16 digs, and three aces, while Reinke was right behind her with 10 kills, 14 digs, and three aces. Freshmen Ashley Vander Tuig and Mattie Shelford also posted double-digit kills.
Senior setter Sophie Burns did her part in ensuring that Thursday night’s match wouldn’t be her last, racking up a career-high 56 assists, facilitating a Cougar offense that boasted a .253 attack percentage and four players with 10 or more kills. Burns also added 11 digs, two blocks, and consecutive aces.
“We stepped up to the challenge. Everyone did well and it was a fun game to watch,” said Cougar coach Chris Keife, who tabbed his first ever road win over CBU. “Offensively we played very well. We passed better than we did in the previous two matches against them and Sophie did a nice job of running the offense. We served very well. We were able to disrupt their offense, and we were a lot more effective this time around.”
Azusa Pacific had only won one of the seven sets played against California Baptist during the regular season, and the pattern appeared to be continuing with the Lancers clinging to an 18-16 lead in the opening set. However, Burns and freshman libero Ashley Swatek, who finished the night with 13 digs and five assists, each added a pair of assists as the Cougars rattled off eight of the next nine points to reach set-point. The Lancers staved off the game three times, but eventually fell on an Ingrid Carmona error.
In the second set, the Lancers had a pair of set-points, but the Cougars saved both of them and had a chance to take a two-set lead after a Shelford kill. The Lancers then responded by winning the next three points to even the score at 1-1 thanks to blocks from Jordyn Siko and Kattie Givens.
Azusa Pacific rebounded well from the tight loss, and a 6-1 run midway through the set, and eight kills by Landers were enough to give the Cougars the advantage heading into the fourth set.
A pair of service aces by Reinke combined with a Vander Tuig kill and two kills by Landers gave the Cougars an early 5-0 advantage in the fourth. However, Azusa Pacific gave the lead right back with six errors during an eight point Lancer run.
The Cougars went on another streak to swing the momentum back in their favor with two aces and two assists by Burns, giving them a 13-10 lead. Reinke also chipped in with kills on three consecutive points to extend the lead to 21-15. Azusa Pacific finally clinched the match on a Lancer error, setting the table for Keife to try for his first-ever win at Fresno Pacific in the NCCAA West final on Saturday.
CBU’s freshman middle blocker Malika O'Brien had yet another outstanding performance against the Cougars with 11 kills, nine blocks, and three aces. Senior outside hitter Faith Steinwedell also added 10 kills, 13 digs, and four blocks for California Baptist. Junior Lauren Edwards led the team in attack percentage at .400 on seven kills, while Cori Esparza’s one kill lifted the Cougars to set point in the third game.
The win, which was the first NCCAA playoff victory in the program's history, sends the Cougars to Fresno for the West Region final against Fresno Pacific.
“I’m looking forward to seeing them again. They’re a physical, big team. I’m excited to play them and have some of our young girls gain that experience. It’s always a good atmosphere up there,” said Keife.
The Cougars nearly beat the Sunbirds in Azusa earlier this season, but fell in five sets after jumping out to a 2-0 led. Saturday’s match is slated for 7 p.m., and can be viewed Here.