KISSIMMEE, Fla.-- Initially uncertain of it would even be one of the 10 teams to play for the National Christian College Athletics Association national championships, the Azusa Pacific women’s volleyball team sure made a splash on the opening day of pool play. The Cougars, who received an at-large berth to the NCCAA tournament after falling in five sets to Point Loma in the West Region final, kicked off Thursday with a 3-0 win (25-15, 25-18, 25-23) over the reigning national champions of McMurry before posting a 3-1 victory (25-20, 25-17, 16-25, 25-10) over Bethel at the Kissimmee Civic Center in Kissimmee, Fla.
The Cougars did a good job of shaking the rust from a two week break in the opening sweep, and responded well to their lone hiccup with a dominating performance in the final set against Bethel. After falling 25-16 Azusa Pacific handled the four-time NCCAA champion Pilots, registering a lopsided 25-10 victory to seal a 2-0 start for the Cougars.
“Two weeks off is a long time. We’re just trying to get the rust out. We’re competing, and we’re trying to find a good rhythm. After beating the defending champions in three, and then beating a good Bethel team, it’s a great start for us and the direction we want to be headed,” said head coach Chris Keife. “In that third set against Bethe we just weren’t mentally sharp. We lost focus after going ahead 2-0, and from there it was a trickle effect from our lack of engagement. We had a lack of execution overall. But it was a blessing in disguise because it was the first time all year that I felt our girls responded in that fashion. They showed that they can step up and turn it around after not playing well, and I was very happy with what I saw down the stretch.”
Christy Cain and Joy Reinke each combined for 21 kills on the day, while Mattie Shelford finished with 20 kills. Alicia Utke tabbed 17 kills and 29 digs, and also added a pair of aces against Bethel.
Sophomore setter Jaden Louie tallied 60 assists on Thursday, and Tristan Racich registered 36 assists and six digs.
The Azusa Pacific attack was efficient in the opening win, posting a .374 attack percentage after hitting +.450 in the first two games. Shelford, Cain, and Reinke each tabbed 10 kills while Louie dished out a match-high 33 assists. Ashley Swatek led the Cougar defense with 10 digs as Azusa Pacific sided out the War Hawks at a 64 percent rate, holding McMurry to a .161 attack percentage.
In each of the first two sets Azusa Pacific built early leads and maintained sizeable advantages throughout. The third, however, saw McMurry jump out to a quick 11-4 lead before Keife called a timeout. Following the stoppage Azusa Pacific rattled off 13 of the next 19 points to square the set at 17 apiece.
The teams then traded the next four points before Azusa Pacific grabbed its first lead since taking an early 2-1 edge with a 20-19 advantage on a War Hawk error. McMurry, however, responded with three straight points to make it a 22-20 contest. But four straight Azusa Pacific kills behind the serve of Emily Ingalls clinched the Cougars’ first win of the tournament.
The Cougars were strong in the first set against Bethel, taking a 5-1 lead on a beautiful ace from Utke before back-to-back kills from Reinke and Edwards pushed the score to 7-1. Bethel, however, crawled back and took a 19-18 advantage in the opening game before Azusa Pacific closed the match on a 5-1 run capped by a Shelford block.
In the second set Azusa Pacific the Cougars outscored Bethel 6-2 down the stretch, going ahead 2-0 on a Cain kill. In the third it was Bethel that finished strong, turning a 15-14 lead into a 25-16 win thanks to a 10-2 run behind five kills and two aces.
In the fourth Azusa Pacific jumped out to an early 7-1 lead and never looked back. The Cougars used a 7-0 spurt to push a 14-9 lead into a 12-point advantage. The Cougars scored 15 of the final 16 points in the game to position themselves nicely heading into Friday’s doubleheader.
Against Bethel three Cougars finished with double figure kills, led by Reinke’s and Cain’s 11 apiece. Swatek tabbed 11 digs, and junior outside hitter Hayley Beetstra registered six kills on 13 swings.
Azusa Pacific returns to action on Friday when it takes on Roberts Wesleyan at noon (EST) before playing Lee (Tenn.) at 4 p.m. to close out pool play. Azusa Pacific can guarantee one of the two top spots with two more wins on Friday, while a split would potentially land the Cougars in the semifinals on Saturday morning.