AZUSA, Calif. -- After falling behind 8-0 to open the match it might have been logical to think that Azusa Pacific had finally played out its hand. Instead, the NAIA’s No. 13-ranked Cougars showed why they are a team nobody wants to play by straightening itself out and going on to sweep No. 8-ranked Concordia, 3-0, Saturday night at the Felix Event Center.
In an opening sequence that displayed both benches different styles the Eagles (20-7, 11-7) ran off the first 8 points of game 1 with an energetic start. Lindsey Sommer had a pair of service aces in the run before Azusa Pacific (22-6, 13-5) began to steadily climb back into it. Head coach Chris Keife called timeout down 6-0 and delivered a calming message to his team.
“I thought that the girls were a little to amped up for the game tonight and that one of the things that we have been teaching them is that every game is the same and I think we just lost track of that,” said Keife. “When the timeout was called I just said it is 1 point at a time, take it slow, get into our system and execute.”
Trailing 9-1, a Jenny Brickner kill followed by an Eagle attack error and a Brittany Brown service ace pulled the Cougars within 9-4. Azusa Pacific continued to fight it’s way back and, after the team’s split the next 6 points, the Cougars went on a 3-point run with a kill by Chelsea Morgan, a block by Brickner and Allison Kincheloe and a Sommer attack error to close the gap to 12-10.
“We just wanted to stay focused on the basics of what we are supposed to do,” said Morgan. “I know for myself I keep playing it over in my head where to set my feet and to get my arms straight over the net. A lot of what we are able to do is because of repetition.”
The Eagles began to extend their lead and a pair of kills by Chie Inoue put them up 18-12. However, a kill by Megan Burch in between 2 Concordia errors quickly brought the Cougars back to within 18-15. But Concordia responded with a push of its own to extend the lead to 21-16 forcing another timeout.
This time Morgan came out and provided a lift with a block and 2 kills in a 6 point run that snuffed out any momentum the Eagles had established as the Cougars held a 22-21 lead.
“Our defense was good tonight but our block hesitated and struggled a little bit but halfway through the first game we started to do better,” said Keife.
Concordia, which committed 9 errors in the opening game, made several costly mistakes down the stretch that gave the Cougars a 30-26 win.
“I feel like tonight showed a lot about us as a team. When Concordia was up 8-0 they were loud and on a roller coaster high and we knew that we were fully going to get out of it,” Brickner said. “But to come from that far back and beat them gave us a lot of confidence because most of the points that we were giving them were off our errors.”
The tone of game 2 was drastically different as the Cougars hit .273 en route to a 30-23 win. Leading 14-10, Azusa Pacific got a kill by Morgan and an ace from Heather Flores to take open up an advantage that was too much for the Eagles to overcome.
The third game was a tight contest throughout as 2 of the NAIA's best exchanged points. Neither team lead by more than 2 points until 4 consecutive Cougar attack errors contributed to turning a 16-15 lead into a 19-16 deficit. Azusa Pacific stormed right back as it reeled off 7 of the next 8 points – including 3 kills by Jessica DeJager - retake the lead, 23-20. They wouldn’t trail again in winning their third consecutive match and ninth in their past 10.
DeJager finished with a match-high 14 kills and 13 digs. Kincheloe had 39 assists and a match-high 18 digs. Colleen Walker and Morgan tallied 11 kills.
The Cougars have now opened up a 2 game cushion between themselves and Concordia for third place in the Golden State Athletic Conference. Azusa Pacific has not finished that high since placing third in 2002.
“I think our girls are doing a good job of believing and they are buying into everything more and they are working hard,” Keife said. “I mean these girls are starting to realize that they are a good team and a team to be reckoned with. We are peaking at the right time and everyday we are getting better and better.”
Azusa Pacific will close out the home portion of its regular season schedule next Tuesday when it welcomes Westmont to the Felix Event Center at 7 p.m.