Cougars Fall Short In Playoffs Despite Comeback Effort

This article was originally published in ZU News.

Azusa Pacific’s volleyball team had their best season since 2013, making it to the NCAA Division II West Region Championships, where they fell just short of a comeback win against California State University San Bernadino.

The Cougars dropped the first two sets, 10-25 and 23-25, before coming back to win the third and fourth sets 25-14 and 25-11. They lost the final set 13-15.

“Cal State San Bernardino did a great job out there. They got us out of rhythm and they served really well. They made it a challenge for us to get in rhythm as a team,” head coach Chris Keife said. “The girls battled and did a nice job, being down 0-2, to come back in five and lose 15-13. That showed a lot of our character. I’m proud of the girls.”

APU struggled to put points together in the first set. CSUSB opened up a 5-0 lead and didn’t relent as they took the set 25-10.

The second set was a different story. APU came out with a different level of intensity. They exchanged points equally until it was 7-7. The Cougars went on a run, grabbing their biggest lead of five points at 16-11. CSUSB took a time-out and was able to comeback after, tying it up at 17 a piece, before grabbing the lead and winning 25-23.

Even though they dropped the second set, Keife said that they played a lot better.

“A lot of it was our execution. We made sure that our girls were getting behind the ball from our passes. We tried going to the hot hitter out there with our sets,” Keife said. “We talked about being more physical. We were less timid in general, just going for it. If we’re going to go, we needed to just go for it.”

Junior setter Kaylen Higa helped the Cougars in this set. She led the team with 26 assists.

“The passing was a big factor in it. We struggled in the first set to find our rhythm. As we went onto sets two, three and four we got more confident with our passing and our hitters were more hungry,” Higa said. “They wanted to put away balls and show them that we’re here for a fight and we’re not going to back down.”

The third set started off in a similar way to the second. APU and CSUSB traded points until it was tied 8-8. The Cougars grabbed a four point lead, 13-9, before CSUSB started to comeback again.

APU led 16-14 when sophomore libero Bailey Henington started to serve. Henington served nine times in a row as the Cougars went on a 9-0 run to close the set 25-14.

“I was just trying to get it in and play good defense. I love serving and I love the game,” Henington said. “Basically I needed to just stay calm for my teammates, and in return they kept my serve for me.”

Henington had a season high three aces on the night. She also led the team with 25 digs.

The Cougars played a strong fourth set as well, coming back from a four point deficit to tie it up at 11. They grabbed a three point lead and didn’t relinquish it, winning the set 25-21.

The final set came down to the wire as the lead changed 10 times, before CSUSB put it away, 15-13.

“We haven’t played Cal State San Bernardino since I’ve been at APU for 14 years. This was our first time seeing them,” Keife said. “It was a great environment. The fans did a great job. I can see there’s something to that. With the first two sets, we did struggle. I think there was some pressure on us. I’ve talked to the girls about it. We’ve got to learn from this, learn in the moments we struggle, learn in the moments we do great and move on to next season.”

Some of the other standout performances of the night included junior outside hitters Madison Ogas and Natalie Klapp and sophomore middle blockers Julianne Miller and Sara Wagenveld.

Ogas led the team with 15 kills on the night, while Klapp was second on the team in both kills (10) and digs (18). Miller also recorded 10 kills, while Wagenveld had nine, and both middle blockers had also tallied three blocks each.

The Cougars finish their 2017 season with an overall record of 22-7, but are already looking forward to the future. “Next season” were the two words that were on the minds and lips of APU players and spectators. Every player will be returning next season, as this year’s team was comprised of four juniors, six sophomores and six freshmen.

“Last year was a huge growth for us. We started five freshmen last season. Going into this season, we’re still very underclassmen heavy. We lose nobody on this roster and we’re adding a few more for next season,” Keife said. “I look at the growth we had from last year, we won nine of our last 10 matches ending the season last year and we took that going forward into this season as well. Let’s look forward to what just occurred. I’m expecting to see the same growth from next year to this year as well.”

Henington echoed what Keife said, saying she’s already ready for next season.

“Honestly, I’m ready for spring. I’m ready to get back at it again. This was definitely a new experience for all of us. It was so much fun. San Bernardino put up a good fight and we were able to fight back in sets three and four,” Henington said. “I’m just excited about going into spring and bettering our abilities for next fall.”