It was business as usual for the NAIA’s No. 10-ranked Azusa Pacific, even if it was a do-or-die match. The Cougars dropped the first game for the 11th time in the past 20 matches, only to storm back to take the next 3 games to beat No. 13 Concordia, 24-30, 30-15, 30-23, 30-26, in the first round of the NAIA Region II playoffs and advance to the regional semifinals for the first time since 2002.
Led by Ashley Robbins and Lindsey Sommer, who each had 4 kills in the opening game, Concordia grabbed the early lead in the match and never let go of it in game one, leading by as much as 6 points on several occasions before settling for the rather convincing victory.
“It wasn’t a matter of nerves,” said Megan Burch, one of 3 Cougar freshmen to start their first-ever college playoff match. “We were calm and felt fine and didn’t haven any bad errors. Concordia just out-played us.”
However, as it has done on several occasions this season, Azusa Pacific shook off the rusty start, started anew in game two and rolled to back-to-back victories without ever allowing the Eagles to see the lead. The Cougars used a 20-6 run to finish off the second game with All-GSAC senior Jenny Brickner leading the way with 6 kills in 9 attempts during the game.
Azusa Pacific again led throughout game three, though CUI used a 7-0 run to pull to within 2 points at 20-18 before the Cougars closed out the game with a 10-5 run coming out of a time-out. Brickner again paced the Cougars with a perfect 6 kills on 6 attempts.
“Once you get a couple of good kills, it’s nonstop for this group,” added Burch, who was 1 of 4 Cougars to tally double-digit kills. “When we get into a rhythm we can go for 6, 7 or 8 points in a row.”
In the deciding fourth game, Azusa Pacific put together an 8-1 run to take control of the game at 16-11 and then finished off a tired set of Eagles to avenge last year’s first-round loss to Concordia in the 2 teams’ first-ever postseason match-up.
“It wasn’t a matter of us not playing well but rather I thought Concordia played great in the first game,” said Cougar coach Chris Keife. “Their season was on the line and they were playing with a lot of emotion, but we remained disciplined and true to our system and wore them out.”
Brickner led all players with 17 kills in 27 attempts (.556) and 4 block assists while Burch, Colleen Walker and Jessica DeJager each added 13 kills. Robbins finished with 12 kills to lead Concordia.
For the third time in 10 days, an Azusa Pacific team ended Concordia’s season in the regional playoffs. Last week, the Cougar men’s and women’s soccer teams bounced Concordia out of the postseason as volleyball did tonight.
“We’re headed in the right direction,” said Keife whose Cougars have now have won 11 of their past 13 matches. “The players are enjoying the fruits of their hard work, and I’m very happy for them.”
Now 24-7 on the season, Azusa Pacific moves on to the NAIA regional semifinals at Fresno Pacific where they will meet defending national champion and No. 3-ranked Cal Baptist Friday (Nov. 18) at 4 p.m. Top-ranked Fresno Pacific takes on No. 24 Point Loma Nazarene at 7 p.m. in the other regional semi. Friday’s winners meet for the regional title Saturday (Nov. 19) at 7 p.m. A possible third-place match would be played at 4 p.m., if necessary.
“We’re excited to play Cal Baptist again,” said Burch. “They’re a terrific team, but we didn’t give them our best last week, so it’ll be great to have another chance against them.”