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Counting Down: No. 7

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Photo by Azusa Pacific Sports Information
The 1980 Cougar volleyball team won the inaugural NAIA championship tournament in 1980.

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July 11, 2013
Chris Baker

Last year, Cougar Athletics counted down the last 30 days of summer with the Cougar Countdown blog series, which contained 30 items of interest to Cougar fans leading into the 2012-13 school year. For the summer of 2013, Cougar Athletics takes a look back with a ranking of Azusa Pacific’s top 13 teams of all-time, which was compiled by the office of Sports Information with input from current and past coaches and administrators. The top 13 teams in Cougar Athletics history will be revealed one at a time each Thursday throughout the summer, culminating with the No. 1 team on August 21.

MAY 30 -- No. 13: 2000 Softball
JUNE 6 -- No. 12: 2005 Men’s Tennis
JUNE 13 -- No. 11: 1985 Football
JUNE 20-- No. 10: 1997-98 Men’s Basketball
JUNE 27-- No. 9: 1983 Track & Field
JULY 4-- No. 8: 2010-11 Women’s Basketball

The countdown continues with the No. 7 team:

1980 Azusa Pacific Women’s Volleyball

Record: 43-8
NAIA National Champions
AIAW National Runner-Up
1980 Cougar Volleyball Photo Album

In 1980 the Cougar volleyball team accomplished something no other Azusa Pacific program had done before, capturing the school’s first NAIA championship in a record-breaking 43 win season. Since then 36 other teams have followed in the footsteps of those ’80 Cougars, with Azusa Pacific claiming its eighth consecutive NAIA Directors cup in its final season of NAIA competition in 2012. And while there have been numerous champions in the university’s acclaimed history, none may be as special as those first Cougars that hoisted the banner in the Fall of 1980. Led by an endearing, but stern coach in Azusa Pacific Hall of Famer Alane LeGrand the self-described ‘scrappy and undersized’ Cougars were set to defend their 1979 AIAW Division III championship. But a new tournament was on the horizon as the NAIA began offering championships for women’s sports in the fall of 1980, and Azusa Pacific altered its course towards bringing back the school’s first NAIA banner. “We had worked hard to get women’s athletics as part of the NAIA’s championship venue. So to have one of our teams go and win it was outstanding. They had been involved in the AIAW and been successful. But to be a champion in the inaugural NAIA tournament was very significant. It showed that we could, as an athletic program, compete at the national level with anyone,” said then Azusa Pacific athletics director Dr. Cliff Hamlow. The team returned five of its starters from the 1979 AIAW championship, including senior co-captains Debbie Meche and Beckey Goodman. Sophomore setter, and future three-time NAIA All-American Stephanie Alpenia was back for her second season, while fellow starters Gail Fischer and Teresa Saathoff returned to help Azusa Pacific chase down a title. The Cougars’ season saw a pair of 12-match winning streaks lead to 43 wins (43-8), nine more than the next winngest season (34 in 1991). Of the 43 wins, 31 came in a sweep, while six of the Cougars’ eight losses came against NCAA programs; not bad for a team that didn’t exactly intimidate opponents when it walked in the gym. “We were so little compared to a lot of the teams we faced. Even our tall players were real slender. But we had amazing chemistry on the court, and really that’s what made us so good,” said Meche. That chemistry came from the top as part of an intentional plan from LeGrand to push the women past just being good volleyball players. “Every one of the players on the team had great chemistry. I think it’s because our coach’s motto was that when we’re playing, we’re witnesses, so every single one of us had that connection spiritually,” said Alpenia. “Alane really brought the team together. We had Bible studies before practice and before games. The biggest thing is that we were witnesses to other people and it wasn’t just volleyball. We were blessed with talent, but the chemistry was amazing. We loved each other on and off the court, and a lot of that was because of our coach.” The tight-knit Cougars opened the season on a 12-0 run, sweeping the likes of California Baptist, Pomona Pitzer, and Idaho State in the process. The players, who by coach’s orders had to smile at all times on the court, ran into their first loss when Loyola Marymount swept them in three tight sets (20-18, 15-13, 15-12). “One thing that was kind of weird about coach is that we had to smile on the court. We were very competitive and wanted to kill the other team, but even if we made a mistake, we had to smile. It’s such a mental game that it’s easy to get down. And at times the last thing you want to do is smile. But over time our team we would laugh at our mistakes and that was a big thing for us mentally. The other teams looked at us like we were weird, but we didn’t care” said Alpenia. Following the loss to LMU, Azusa Pacific rattled off 12 wins in the next 14 matches leading into the NAIA District playoffs, hosted by Point Loma. The Cougars, who were the prohibitive favorites in the inaugural district championship, found themselves in trouble early on, falling to Point Loma in the opening match and needing to win its next three matches to advance to the bi-district round. The Cougars responded with a sweep of Southern California College, and won a rematch over Point Loma to setup a one-game playoff with Point Loma. “Going into something like that you have to win. You don’t have any other choice. I remember us having just one game to make or break our season. We were so competitive, like any team, and we had to beat them on their home court. I remember us just refusing to lose,” said Meche. And the Cougars took care of business, winning 15-8 to keep the NAIA championship dream alive. But after Azusa Pacific trounced Southern Utah State in the bi-district playoff to earn a spot in the championship tournament in Pittsburg Kan. the Cougars were dealt a fatal blow when senior setter Beckey Goodman suffered a season-ending injury. “She was such a part of the way we ran our offense so when she went down I thought we were going to lose a lot. She hated not being on the court with us. I knew she wasn’t happy, but you never knew how much it bothered her because she was that kind of leader. It was so sad for her to go down her senior year, and I thought for sure we were done after that,” said Meche. So with Goodman out the Cougars turned to sophomore Alpenia, who would be asked to take charge of an offense that had been run masterfully by the senior setter. “Stephanie was 100 percent opposite of Becky, but in a great way. There’s nothing that takes away from her ... she played so well down the stretch for us. It was really hard to see Beckey go down, but Stephanie was so good that we were able to overcome it,” said Meche. The Cougars, who ran a 6-2 offense all season, would now have to adjust to life with one setter. And thankfully for Alpenia, the team wasn’t lacking for weapons or support. “It was really sad when Beckey went down. She was an amazing setter and a great leader. She was so supportive, even with her knee injury. My job was easy because we had such a great team. I could put the ball up anywhere and they would have a kill. Teresa was great with the quick hits in the middle, and Debbie, Gail, Roxane Merrill, and Kim Cutrona were all very strong, athletic hitters,” said Alpenia. At the national championships the Cougars put on a display in what is no doubt one of the most impressive championship runs in school history. The Cougars swept their way out of pool play, and were perfect in in a quarterfinal win over Missouri-Kansas City. In the semifinals Azusa Pacific stormed past St. John Fisher (N.Y.) to remain unscathed in the tournament as winners of their first 12 sets in five matches to earn a title game bout with East Texas State, just one win away from taking back Azusa Pacific’s first NAIA banner. “It was a very big deal for us and for the school. At that time we were very aware that we hadn’t won an NAIA championship, so we wanted to be the first ones to do it. We had so much support from the school, and the students that we felt like we had to win it for us, our coach, and for them,” said Meche. “When we went to play East Texas State I just remember thinking, ‘Wow, these girls are so big. What do they eat?’ But we played a quick different style of volleyball that a lot of teams weren’t used to so I knew we’d have a chance.” The Cougars, who had yielded an average of just 6.25 points per game throughout the tournament, throttled East Texas State 15-3 in the opening set. But ETSU bounced back, dealing Azusa Pacific its first set loss of the week with a 15-10 game to tie the best of five match at 1-1. In the third game the Cougars took command, winning 15-3, and in the final set the Cougars clinched the inaugural NAIA championship with a 15-11 victory on a Saathoff spike. The win clinched the school’s first NAIA title, setting up what would soon become the norm for athletics programs at Azusa Pacific. “We had won NCCAA championships in some of our sports, but the first NAIA championship made a statement. We knew that we could be on the national scene, and had been in various venues, so it only solidified in peoples’ minds that we were competing at that level, and our first NAIA championship was huge in elevating the success of Azusa Pacific athletics,” said Hamlow. And while the Cougars had won a championship the season prior, the 1980 title had a whole different feel to it. “When we won the AIAW it was awesome of course and we celebrated. But the NAIA championship was special because it was the first one for our school and because of the girls on that team. That was the best team I ever played on. It was special, and every time I go back to the Hall of Champions I look at our banner. It’s awesome to know that we helped put Azusa Pacific on the map,” said Alpenia.” Alpenia was named the NAIA Tournament MVP, while Meche, Saathoff, and Fischer received NAIA All-American recognition. LeGrand was named the NAIA Coach of the Year, and later that night informed her team that she wouldn’t be returning the following season. “That night was bittersweet because after we won we were all together and coach told us she was going back to Oklahoma. It was devastating because we all loved her so much, and anyone that knew her would say she’s an inspiration. She made us be happy even when we made mistakes, and she really connected with us,” said Alpenia. Azusa Pacific’s season continued following the NAIA tournament, where the Cougars returned to the AIAW tournament in hopes of repeating as national champions. Azusa Pacific, however, fell to Sacramento State in the title match, finishing as the AIAW runner-up. LeGrand retired with a career-record of 118-37, with a program-record .761 winning percentage. Following that year Cougar volleyball had an 11-year hiatus from the NAIA tournament, and didn’t return until the 1991 season where they reached the quarterfinals. 1980 Azusa Pacific Volleyball Roster

Stephanie Alpenia (So., La Palma, Calif.)
Kim Cutrona (Fr., San Gabriel, Calif.)
Gail Fischer (Jr., South Pasadena, Calif.)
Casey Giacomazzi (Fr., Salinas, Calif.)
Beckey Goodman (Sr., Whittier, Calif.)
Diana Hart (Fr., La Mesa, Calif.)
Laura Hill (Fr., Oklahoma City, Okla.)
Debbie Meche (Sr., Santa Fe Springs, Calif.)
Roxane Merril (Fr., Santa Fe Springs, Calif.)
Diana Nelson (Fr., La Puente, Calif.)
Lisa Nutter (Fr., Alameda, Calif.)
Christine Rietze (Fr., Los Angeles, Calif.)
Teresa Saathoff (Jr., Norwalk, Calif.)
Rhonda Smith (So., Alta Loma, Calif.)
Trina Turpin (Fr., Castro Valley, Calif.) 1980 Azusa Pacific Volleyball Coaching Staff

Alane LeGrand (Head Coach)
Sue Hebel (Assistant Coach)
Jim Giacomazzi (Assistant Manager)