LCSC comeback falls short in five-set war with Azusa Pacific
SIOUX CITY, Iowa – Few teams have the character and competitive drive needed to fight back after losing the first two sets 29-27, and the Lewis-Clark State College volleyball team proved on Friday at the NAIA Volleyball National Championship that they are one of those teams. The ninth-seeded Warriors battled their way out of a 2-0 hole against eighth-seeded Azusa Pacific to tie it up and force a fifth set, but eventually fell 29-27, 29-27, 22-25, 26-28, 15-8.
The loss means the Warriors’ incredible season under first-year head coach LaToya Harris comes to a close. The Warriors end the year at 23-6 after claiming their fifth straight Frontier Conference regular season title and advancing to the national tournament for the 12th time in program history.
“They’re hurting right now,” said LCSC head coach LaToya Harris about her players. “We know that if it wasn’t for our errors we could have won it, and that makes it hard—knowing that it was in our control.”
Friday morning’s contest pitted a strong and tall blocking and attacking team in Azusa Pacific against the quick and powerful Warrior roster. Both teams displayed incredible defense, and the first four sets could not have been closer.
The largest lead of the first set was 20-14 in favor of APU, but the Warriors won 10 of the next 11 volleys to go ahead 24-21. LCSC’s lead was short lived, however, as Azusa Pacific, led by 6-foot-1 senior Whittany Radcliffe, caught fire and came back to steal the set. Radcliffe, an outside hitter, had back-to-back kills to close it out.
“They went to her [Radcliffe] when they needed,” said Harris. “Just setting up a solid block against her was difficult, and when we did we were setting Azusa up for a lot of free balls.”
The Warriors hopes were again dashed in set No. 2 as they worked their way to three set point situations but ended up with nothing to show for it. LCSC led 25-24, 26-25, and 27-26 before losing the next three volleys via a kill, a block, and an attack error.
Despite the first two sets being about as disheartening as possible, Lewis-Clark State was able to turn the momentum in the third.
“This team never gives up and that says a lot about their character,” Harris said about her players.
The set began with Lauryn Herrick, the Frontier Conference Player of the Year, blasting a crisp kill straight up the middle to claim the first point. The opening shot set a new tone for the Warriors as they improved to a .212 hitting percentage in the third set, after hitting .140 in the second, and followed this with a .277 clip in set No. 4.
LCSC took a 5-4 lead in the third set and never surrendered the lead after that to bring the match to 2-1.
The fourth set returned to the back-and-fourth scoring pattern of the first two sets, but this time the Warriors were able to finish on top thanks in part to a number of incredible hustle plays. One such play involved LCSC’s Kaylee Rector coming up with an incredible dig off of a smash by Radcliffe. The dig ricocheted into the Warriors’ bench area where Herrick chased it down and sent it back into play. The long volley ended with Nicole Graybeal hammering a kill from a nice set by Nevena Dragovic.
Set No. 4 culminated with LCSC being one point away from being eliminated at 24-22, however, with a couple more kills by Graybeal, a kill by Kelli Tikker, and a great solo block by Dragovic the Warriors came back for the win.
Azusa Pacific, now 31-7 overall, proved to be a formidable foe in the fifth set. The Cougars, now 23-5 in five-set matches over the past three seasons, destroyed Grandview University and Taylor University in the fifth set during this year’s pool play and was too much for the Warriors to handle as well.
Surprisingly, despite LCSC displaying the stronger service game throughout the match, Azusa Pacific out served the Warriors in the final set. With three service aces for APU and three service errors for LCSC, the Cougars built leads of 7-0 and 13-3. The Warriors won five of the last seven volleys, but it proved to be too little too late.
Graybeal led the Warriors with a team season-high 25 kills and a .429 hitting percentage to go with nine blocks in the match. Herrick added 15 kills on a .279 hitting mark, and Brianne Brown and Tikker had 11 kills apiece. Tikker and Herrick also had three service aces each.
Dragovic finished with a season-high 62 assists.
“We gave up too many points early in the match,” said Harris. “Later in the match we were fatigued because we had to fight so hard to come back.”
The Warriors hit .208 overall compared to .238 for APU, had a 12-10 advantage in blocks, and a 9-6 edge in aces.
Radcliffe led the Cougars with 24 kills to go with a .300 hitting percentage and five block assists. Jackie Landers contributed 21 kills on a team-high .405 percentage.
Defense shined on both sides of the court as Kaylee Rector topped LC with 30 digs and Robin Portela led Azusa with 15.
While Harris noted that the loss on Friday is hard to digest, especially when there is a team still in the tournament who the Warriors swept earlier this year in Biola University, she expressed a good deal of optimism about the future.
“I’m very pleased about this season, and this is just the beginning of it. I’m already ready to start the next season.”
The ride won’t continue for everyone though as the Warriors will lose three seniors from their roster including Graybeal, Herrick, and Tikker.
“Our three seniors were amazing and really came through for us this year,” said Harris. “Our incoming freshman will have some big shoes to fill.”