AZUSA, Calif.-- In 2012 the Cougar women’s volleyball team continued the program’s unprecedented run of success, surpassing the 20-win plateau for the ninth consecutive season (22-10, 10-6) despite fielding a starting lineup that more often than not featured four or more freshmen. And while Azusa Pacific endured some growing pains in its first season in the Pacific West Conference, the program welcomes back the majority of its production from a year ago and looks primed for another strong season, especially after going through the PacWest and it’s daunting travel schedule.
“The preseason has gone well. We’re a year older, and I expect all of our returners to be better than they were last season. The continuity is important. Its important to have returners coming back and knowing what to do. It’s good that we’re in year two as well. There’s so much you learn from going to new places. The conference forces us to travel a lot more than we used to as part of the GSAC. Hopefully it’s more of a routine now and the travel itself will be easier on us,” said head coach Chris Keife, who is the program’s all-time wins leader (224-93).
The team has a pair of All-PacWest players returning for their second season in sophomore middle blocker Ashley Vander Tuig, and sophomore hitter Joy Reinke. Vander Tuig led the Cougars with 131 blocks, ranking third in the PacWest in that category, and started in all 31 matches as a true freshman. Reinke made an impact all over the court, ranking in the team’s top four in kills (353), blocks (37), digs (318), and aces (33). She also tallied 11 double-doubles, leading all returners in that category.
The team added four newcomers, including a pair of transfers. Junior Alicia Utke had an impressive two seasons at Golden West College, helping the Rustlers to two Orange Empire Conference championships, while tallying 252 kills in 2012. Sophomore Jaden Louie started 19 times as a true freshman at the University of Memphis, and led the Tigers with 679 assists in 2012. Azusa Pacific also welcomes incoming freshmen Delaney Sullivan and < ahref= http://www.apu.edu/athletics/volleyball/roster/midlandashley13/>Ashley Midland to a roster that features eight underclassmen. And with so much talent on a young roster, finding the right mix will be key to the Cougars success in their second season of PacWest play.
“It’s a battle at every position right now. At this point in the season I don’t know where I’m putting players yet and that’s a good thing. We have four solid middles with individual strengths. The difficulty is that we can’t get everyone on the court. We’ll have to see what our best lineup is, and what the best matchups are. We want competition and we want all of our players competing for spots. I know we have the talent to win, but when you have young players its hard to play your best night in night out. Consistency and sustainability are the biggest things, and if we can take care of those I expect us to be part of the conference race,” said Keife.
Azusa Pacific’s pre-conference schedule includes two weekend tournaments to kick off the season. The Cougars will open with the Sea Side Invitational at Point Loma, where they’ll play Texas A&M International, Cal State Dominguez Hills, Cal State Stanislaus, and Montana State-Billings. The following weekend the team will travel north for the Route 92 showdown, where it’ll take on CCAA schools Cal State East Bay and Cal State Monterey Bay, along with Northwest Nazarene and Seattle Pacific.
Azusa Pacific kicks off its home slate with a 6 p.m. match against San Diego Christian on Sept. 17 before the PacWest opener against Fresno Pacific in the Felix Event Center on Sept. 21 as part of a five-match home stand, the team’s longest of the season. The Cougars close the home stand against rival California Baptist on Oct. 1 in a rematch of last year’s NCCAA West Region semifinal, which the Cougars won in four sets.
A brief three-day, two-match road trip at Point Loma and Dixie State (Utah) leads into another pair of PacWest home games against Academy of Art and Dixie State on Oct. 11 and 12. The Cougars then travel to Hawai’i on Oct. 16, where they’ll take on Hawai’i Hilo, Hawai’i Pacific, and Chaminade. The Cougars went 3-1 during their Hawaiian swing in 2012, falling to BYU-Hawai’i.
The 20-match PacWest schedule continues with California Baptist in Riverside on Oct. 24. After welcoming Point Loma and La Sierra to Azusa on Oct. 26 and 29, the team travels to Fresno Pacific and returns home for a three-match set against BYU-Hawaii, Hawai’i Hilo, and Chaminade from Nov. 7-9. The Cougars then close the regular season with a Bay Area road trip at Notre Dame de Namur, Holy Names, and Dominican.
“The non-conference schedule will be tough. We play quality teams out of the CCAA, and we’ll have to be ready right out of the gate. We’re taking on very good schools and will be challenged early. I think our girls are excited to meet those challenges and get ready for the long PacWest schedule. I think this year it’s a more balanced league, and adding contests to make it a 20-game conference schedule is great as well,” said Keife.
The Cougars have position battles all over the court, but none may be as important as at setter. But with a pair of talented sophomore setters pushing each other in practice for playing time, the team looks poised to replace Sophie Burns, whose 2,662 career assists rank fifth in program history. Tristan Racich saw time as a true freshman in 2012, appearing in 24 matches and recording 207 assists. She notched a career-high 34 assists in a sweep of Notre Dame de Namur, and proved to be more than capable of running the Cougars’ system.
Louie also played as a true freshman, albeit it on the other side of the country at NCAA Division I Memphis. The sophomore out of Whittier Christian led the team in assists, and started in all but six matches in her lone season with the Tigers. Both setters bring a different dimension to the court, and regardless of who’s playing, the Cougars look to be in good shape.
“Tristan runs a smooth offense and has a good serve. She runs the middle and the opposite well and knows how to play in our system. Jaden has good court leadership and brings good energy. She’s a scrappy defender, and is still developing and learning our system. She’s very athletic, and can get to a lot of different balls on the court. The main thing with her is trying to tame what she does. She’s got some flash to her, and at times we’re trying to rein that in,” said Keife.
The Cougars led the PacWest in kills in 2012, finishing with 1,625, while ranking No. 4 in hitting percentage. This season Azusa Pacific returns two hitters that tabbed 200+ kills in 2012, and adds Utke to a deep and talented lineup. Mattie Shelford registered 201 kills, averaging 2.42 a set, second-highest total among returners, while Reinke’s 353 kills in 2012 lead all returners. Hayley Beetstra finished with 82 kills in 27 matches as a sophomore, and will be one of the team’s key right-side hitters.
“We have a lot of very capable hitters. Alicia and Joy are both really good pin attackers that can play six rotations. Alicia can play opposite and not miss a beat, and I really expect a lot from her this season. Mattie had a very good freshman year, and she’ll continue to be one of our best hitters. Hayley really developed into a strong right side hitter, and she’s kind of found her home out there,” said Keife.
With an average height of over 6-1, the Cougars’ middles offer one of the PacWest’s most imposing fronts. Vander Tuig (6-3) had an impressive freshman campaign in the middle, totaling 222 kills at a .293 clip, all while registering 131 blocks (31 solo). Seniors Christy Cain (6-4) and Lauren Edwards (6-1) give the team plenty of experience and ability. Cain dealt with injuries as a junior, but still managed to play in 18 matches, recording 46 kills and 29 blocks, six of which came in a four-set victory over Chaminade. Edwards put up a strong junior season, tallying 51 blocks and 204 kills. Midland (6-1) also looked good in the preseason, giving Azusa Pacific depth in the middle.
“We have a lot of talent and depth at the middle blocker position. Vander Tuig is a big threat as a blocker, no matter what position she’s in. She’s a threat in the middle because of her size and quickness and because of the height of where she contacts the ball. Last season Christy was injured and had to play catch up all year. But when she’s healthy she’s shown she’s a definite threat. Lauren started a lot of matches as a junior, and she’s an under the radar type of player. She’s not flashy, and you don’t necessarily notice her attacks, but at the end of the day you notice her stats. She’s consistent and reliable, and above all a really smart player. And then we have Ashley Midland. She has the potential to get court time, and that’s saying a lot competing against two seniors and a sophomore. She’s going to be a sponge and learn everything she can so that she’ll be ready at any moment,” said Keife.
Sophomore Ashley Swatek played in all 32 matches as a true freshman, finishing with a team-high 500 digs. And after an excellent 2012 campaign she’s penciled in as the team’s everyday libero. Senior Emily Ingalls and junior Cori Esparza have shown well in the preseason, and bring a combined 91 matches of experience to the back row.
“Ashley was very consistent as a freshman. She’s very good defensively and she’s just a good overall consistent player. You know what you’re going to get night in night out with her and I’m excited to have her a year older,” said Keife. “Emily and Cori are both really hard workers. They want to get better, and have a desire to improve and it raises their game and the whole team’s game. I see a lot of good things in both of them, and I’m happy to have them back as experienced upperclassmen.”