KISSIMEE, Fla.-- The Azusa Pacific women’s volleyball team clinched a spot in the program’s first national semifinal since 1980, finishing National Christian College Athletics Association pool play with a perfect 4-0 mark after a pair of wins on Friday at the Kissimmee Civic Center in Kissimmee, Fla. The Cougars overcame a slow start in a dominating sweep of Roberts Wesleyan before battling back from a 1-0 hole in a 3-1 victory over Lee to earn Pool B’s top seed.
“The first match we came out a little slow, and turned it around pretty quickly. I thought we did a nice job from there on out. Against Lee we came out strong, and played well throughout against a very good team. Our girls have been grinding this whole season, and it’s exciting that our season is still going. We’re playing well right now and it’s exciting to have their effort pay off,” said head coach Chris Keife.
The Cougars will face Shorter (Ga.) in the second semifinal on Saturday, with the winner advancing to the championship against the winner between Point Loma and Pool B’s second place finisher, which has yet to be determined.
Azusa Pacific picked up where it left off after Thursday’s 2-0 start, albeit it a bit delayed after spotting RWU a 15-6 lead. The Cougars, however, responded in the same fashion they showed yesterday, surging back for a 27-25 first set win, and cruising in the final two sets against the Redhawks. Against a talented Lee team, which was the tournament’s No. 2 seed, the Cougars dropped the opening set, but won each of the next three to earn the program’s third all-time national semifinal appearance.
Alicia Utke finished with 17 kills and 32 digs in the two wins, and Mattie Shelford tabbed 15 kills, while assisting on eight blocks. Jaden Louie continued to orchestrate a balanced Azusa Pacific attack, dishing out 47 assists to six hitters that recorded at least eight kills.
Joy Reinke posted 17 kills and 22 digs, and Ashley Midland finished with eight kills, including six against Lee. The Cougars also utilized a strong defensive showing at the net, recording 23 combined blocks. Christy Cain had 17 kills and assisted on eight blocks, while sophomore libero Ashley Swatek posted 19 digs and two aces.
“The block starts at the serve. We were serving well, and that helped us to get into the right positions. I thought we did a good job serving the ball, and everything else came into place after that,” said Keife. “I think everyone played well at different times. Alicia defended really well, and Mattie was really strong in the second game. Her and Ashley Midland did a great job blocking down the stretch. I’m happy for the players because they’ve worked really hard and they get to see the work pay off.”
Lauren Edwards tallied eight kills, with seven coming against Roberts Wesleyan, and Tristan Racich finished with 23 assists.
In the first match Azusa Pacific held Roberts Wesleyan to a 0.20 attack percentage, and to -.148 and -.103 in the second and third set. After a slow start in which Azusa Pacific dug an early 15-6 hole, the Cougars got back in the game with eight straight points to cut the Roberts Wesleyan lead to 15-14. The Redhawks pulled back ahead and had set point at 24-23, but Azusa Pacific held off RWU and overcame two set points with two kills from Edwards before an error clinched the Cougars’ set at 27-25.
The Cougars controlled the second and third sets, using a 9-0 run after trailing 5-7 in the third to put an end to the Redhawks’ comeback bid, winning the final two games by a combined 22 points.
Azusa Pacific registered 11 blocks, and sided out the Redhawks at a 64 percent clip. Cain was the lone player with double-digit kills, tabbing 10, while Utke and Swatek had 12 and 11 digs respectively.
Against Lee the Cougars saw the Flames close the opening frame on a 5-2 run, turning a 20-20 tie into a 25-22 win. In the second set Azusa Pacific built an early 14-9 edge before Lee came back to knot the score at 19-19. The Flames eventually got two set points, with a Cain kill and an Utke ace keeping the game alive after Lee led 24-23 and 25-24. A Lee error put Azusa Pacific ahead 27-26, and a Midland kill off a Racich set tied the match at 1-1.
In the third set the Cougars led by as many as five before the Flames rallied back to take a 17-16 lead, forcing Keife to call timeout. Out of the timeout Azusa Pacific got three consecutive kills, coming from Hayley Beetstra, Utke, and Shelford to make it a 19-17 game. Then, following another 20-20 tie the Cougars closed the set with a 5-2 run, taking a 2-1 lead on a Shelford kill.
Azusa Pacific never trailed in the fourth set, although Lee did force another 20-20 tie on a kill from Latrice Johnson. The Cougars, however, closed out the Flames in impressive fashion, getting kills from Reinke and Utke before a double block from Cain and Reinke secured Azusa Pacific’s spot in the semifinals.
The Cougars will take on Shorter at noon (EST), with the winner advancing to the championship match slated for 3 p.m.