FRESNO, Calif.-- On Thursday night the Azusa Pacific women’s volleyball team posted its biggest win of the season, upsetting California Baptist in four sets in the National Christian College Athletics Association West Region semifinal. On Saturday night against the NCCAA’s top-seed the Cougars appeared to be at it again, but after a strong start fell in four sets (25-18, 20-25, 25-18, 25-13) to Fresno Pacific after the Sunbirds responded from a second set loss with two convincing games to punch their ticket to the NCCAA national championships in Kissimmee, Fla.
Fresno Pacific (24-3), ranked No. 10 in NCAA Division II, recorded a .289 attack percentage in the match, and tallied 8.5 blocks to advance past the Cougars. Junior hitter Jackie Landers had 15 kills and 10 digs in the loss, while senior setter Sophie Burns finished with a double-double, racking up 34 assists and 10 digs.
“We did a lot of things really well, but we were a little streaky. They went on a lot of runs. I thought we competed well in sets two and three, and after we split I felt good. We were doing well offensively, but I felt our passing and defense struggled a bit,” said head coach Chris Keife.
Azusa Pacific recorded a .182 attack percentage on the night, and had just two players finish with double-figure kills. Joy Reinke tallied 11 kills with eight digs, while freshman middle blocker Ashley Vander Tuig notched eight kills and four blocks. Ashley Swatek had a team-high 16 digs in the match, and chipped in with five assists.
In the first set the Sunbirds utilized an 8-2 run after the teams were knotted at 4-4 to take a commanding 12-6 lead. Azusa Pacific was unable to get back into the game following the spree, and eventually fell behind 1-0.
Azusa Pacific streaked to a 4-1 lead early in the second set, behind a Burns ace, a kill from Mattie Shelford, and two Sunbird errors. The Cougars then used an 8-2 run after leading 10-8 to take an 18-10 edge, thanks to kills from Burns, Reinke, and Vander Tuig. The Sunbirds rallied to make it 22-19, but Azusa Pacific closed the set on a Reinke kill to knot the match at 1-1.
In the third set Azusa Pacific again jumped out to a 4-1 lead, but Fresno Pacific rattled off 12 of the next 16 points to go ahead 13-8. Azusa Pacific got back to within two points three times, but the Sunbirds pushed their margin to as many as seven before posting a 25-18 win.
In the deciding set Fresno Pacific sprinted to a 6-1 lead and never looked back. The Cougars rallied to make it 11-8, but Fresno Pacific closed on a 14-5 run to capture the NCCAA West Region championship with a 25-13 fourth set victory.
The loss all but ends a season in which the upstart Cougars exceeded expectations after losing seven seniors from last year’s squad. This year’s team, which featured four freshmen starters and transfer Lauren Edwards, guided Azusa Pacific to its ninth straight 20-win season despite joining the Pacific West Conference in the school’s transition to NCAA Division II.
“I’m very satisfied with the season. We graduated seven seniors, so coming into the unknown in a new conference with the amount of travel we went through, we did very well. The girls played hard all season and did well, so I’m very happy with how it turned out,” said Keife.
Landers closed the season with 473 kills, and after three seasons at Azusa Pacific ranks sixth on the program’s all-time list with 1,240. Burns enjoyed her best season of her career, tallying 1,086 assists to push her to 2,264, good for fifth on the all-time list.