AZUSA, Calif. -- Playing in your program’s first-ever title game is considered overachieving.
Returning to the championship for a second straight year and finishing 3 straight seasons in the top 10 of the final NAIA coaches poll gives you a bulls-eye and a “championship contender” label.
Three years ago, Azusa Pacific picked up its first NAIA Tournament victory in program history, defeating a Mobile (Ala.) program that had won the NAIA title in 2002 and had appeared in 10 of the past 12 national tournaments. The Cougars’ 2004 run ended abruptly with a penalty-kick defeat to Lindsey Wilson (Ky.).
The following year, Azusa Pacific entered the national spotlight, advancing to a rematch with Lindsey Wilson in the NAIA title game, another Cougar first. Despite a 4-1 loss, the groundwork had been set for a 2006 campaign that would be led by a half-dozen 4-year seniors who represented the heart and soul of Azusa Pacific’s breakthrough to the national stage.
Wins over 4 straight NAIA Tournament-caliber opponents kicked off the 2006 season and catapulted the Cougars to the first No. 1 national ranking in program history. However, the effects of a stunning 2-1 defeat to then-unranked Graceland (Iowa) in the home opener seemed to carry over into a sluggish start to Golden State Athletic Conference play.
Back-to-back 1-0 defeats to Vanguard and Hope International left the Cougars at 2-2-1 at the halfway point of the conference schedule. However, Azusa Pacific regained its early-season form, winning its final 5 conference games by a combined 18-2 margin, part of a 12-game unbeaten streak leading into the Cougars’ second straight national title game. A scoreless draw after 90 minutes of regulation and 2 10-minute overtime periods, the NAIA championship went to a 10-round penalty shootout between Azusa Pacific and Graceland.
The 7-6 shootout defeat, while heartbreaking at the time, could not dampen the enthusiasm surrounding the Azusa Pacific men’s soccer program, which was ranked No. 2 in the 2007 preseason NAIA coaches poll. Cougar head coach Phil Wolf returns 17 players, including 2006’s 3 top goal scorers, a senior trio composed of All-GSAC forwards Sven Simon (13 goals, 9 assists), Steven Lenhart (13 goals, 5 assists) and midfielder Brandon Stirm (8 goals, 10 assists).
The Cougar defense remains strong with the return of junior goalkeeper James Crawford, who posted a 0.75 goals against average in 2006, and for the second straight year, started in goal for each game of the Cougars’ NAIA Tournament run. Central defenders Mark Peters and Eric Winblad also return to anchor the back line.
The top priority for Azusa Pacific in 2007 will be reconstructing a midfield that lost a significant portion of talent and experience with the graduation of NAIA All-American Skelly Kellar and 4-year starter Dustin McBride.
For just the second time in the past decade, Azusa Pacific returns over 80 percent of its scoring from the previous year, and that bodes well for the 2007 Cougar attack. The 2005 squad, the first in program history to advance to the NAIA title game, had 84 percent of its scoring back from the previous season, and the result was a school-record 87 goals.
Much of the offense revolved around 2 of the top 5 in career goals in Cougar history, Andriy Buddny and Ian Leibbrandt, but the third- and fourth-leading scorers on that squad were Sven Simon and Steven Lenhart. The tandem combined for 20 goals in that 2005 campaign, then tallied 13 goals apiece last season.
With Simon and Lenhart providing the most potent scoring punch up top, the Cougars also have an experienced backup in junior Chris Batdorf. Batdorf has 7 goals in 32 career games, and his game-winner in the closing seconds of last year’s road win at Concordia late in the regular season had a major impact on the Cougars’ postseason run. Without that victory, Azusa Pacific would likely not have earned home-field advantage throughout the regional playoffs, which featured an overflow crowd for the Cougars’ 2-1 overtime victory over Vanguard in the Region II championship game.
Mike Wilson, a sophomore transfer from Concordia (Ore.), has displayed a smooth scoring touch, and at 6-foot-1, provides a good target in the box. Alex Earl has already made a favorable impression with the Cougar coaching staff after a strong start to the fall training camp, and the 6-foot-1 freshman gives Azusa Pacific an additional quality option off the bench to spell the starters. Earl scored 52 goals over his final 3 high school seasons at Wheaton (Ill.) Academy.
How Azusa Pacific is able to fill the void left by the graduation of a pair of 4-year starters will likely determine just how successful this squad can be. Over the past 4 years, Azusa Pacific has played 85 games, and for 85 games, Skelly Kellar served as the engine behind the most successful 4-year stretch in the program’s history. Coupled with the graduation of fellow 4-year starter Dustin McBride, the Cougars have a major reconstruction project at hand in the midfield.
Despite the loss of Kellar and McBride, the Cougar midfield remains a seasoned bunch. Senior Brandon Stirm has played in every Azusa Pacific contest over the past 3 years, starting 62 of 69 games while developing a consistency as a scorer and distributor in the Cougar attack. Stirm’s 30 career assists have come at an even rate of 10 per season, and his 18 career goals has put him into 14th in points on the Cougar career charts.
Fellow senior Kolt Callaway is another seasoned veteran who will provide quality leadership from the central midfield. Callaway has started the majority of the 62 games he has played in his first 3 seasons, tallying 11 career goals along the way.
Stepping into the other central midfield spot vacated by Kellar will be senior Elijah Mwansanga, a gifted transfer from Oklahoma Baptist who plays the midfield with a strong defensive emphasis. A native of Lusaka, Zambia, Mwansanga was named to the All-Sooner Athletic Conference second team last year.
Junior Ryan Cheek is a candidate to start as a wide midfielder after appearing in 22 games as a 2006 sophomore. Cheek provides good service from the left side and is not afraid to take on defenders head-to-head.
Junior Matt Kristoff is a versatile player who could also shift into the attack as needed. A technical left-footed player, Kristoff has appeared in 30 games over his first 2 seasons, and he will battle for a full-time starting role in 2007. Sophomore Dana Yoshizu has a year of experience in the Cougar program under his belt after walking on as a 2006 freshman and earning a spot on the team, while senior Rhoman Goyenechea is a technical player who serves a role of spiritual leadership for the team.
In addition to Mwansanga, 5 more recruits help contribute quality depth to the Cougar midfield. Adam Holstein redshirted the 2006 campaign at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, and he is a quality passer who should help Azusa Pacific move and control the ball. Freshmen Ashkon Banihashemi and Jordan Chrzan also figure to press for playing time as wide midfielders. Banihashemi crosses the ball well from either side, while Chrzan is a fearless wide midfielder who is one of the Cougars’ best at taking on defenders.
Mike Musson, a solid technical player with good vision and passing ability in the central midfield, and Davis Delamarter, an imposing physical presence at 6-foot-3, help round out one of the deepest midfields in Cougar history.
The starting back line from last year’s title game returns intact for the 2007 campaign, led by 2006 NAIA All-Tournament defender Jared Karkas. He is joined by central defenders Eric Winblad and Mark Peters, along with outside back Beau Hayden.
Karkas, a 2-year starter, established himself as one of the top left backs in the nation with a breakout sophomore season. He is at his best going forward with his terrific speed and dangerous left foot, and he also provides a reliable target in the box.
Peters has started 30 games over the past 2 seasons, and his experience, his ability to read the game and his superb instincts help make him one of the finest central defenders in the conference. Winblad, meanwhile, started alongside Peters in the central defense in 22 games as a 2006 freshman. A strong defender in his own right, Winblad has also proven dangerous in the attack with 3 goals in 2006. His first collegiate goal was a picturesque 30-yard tailing volley less than a minute into the Cougars’ 4-0 victory over Westminster (Utah).
Hayden, a junior outside back, missed 10 games last year, but has started 22 of the 32 games he has played in his first 2 seasons. He is a tough, athletic player who serves the ball well and has assisted 3 goals in his career.
Danny Sundberg is the only other returning defender for Azusa Pacific, and the senior is a strong technical player who should compete for minutes and provide valuable depth and experience to the Cougar defense.
Six-foot-three sophomore Gareth Tomlinson and 6-foot-5 junior Mike Pertz are the tallest players on the team, and both are transfers who will press for immediate playing time. Tomlinson, a native of Wigan, England, was a junior college first team All-American at Potomac State (W.V.) CC as a 2006 freshman. Pertz, a vocal player who can organize a defense well, redshirted a season at Akron University before playing the past 2 seasons at Mount Vernon Nazarene (Ohio).
Thomas Ryan is a junior transfer from Linfield (Ore.) College, a 14-game starter for the Wildcats as a 2006 sophomore. Ryan is a strong competitor and a hard worker who will provide added depth to the Cougar defense as a right back.
Brett Taylor and Robert James join Azusa Pacific straight from the high school ranks. Taylor, a Westlake Village, Calif. native, is a 2-time All-CIF center midfielder who scored 15 goals and assisted 10 more as a 2007 senior at Oaks Christian High. James was a high school teammate of fellow freshman Jordan Chrzan, and the 6-foot-3 center back was named all-CIF second team for Trabuco Hills High in Mission Viejo, Calif., after helping lead the Mustangs to the CIF quarterfinals as a 2007 senior.
A proven winner and clutch performer, Crawford now has a full year of starting experience under his belt as he begins his 2007 junior campaign as the incumbent in goal. Twelve of his 26 career starts have come in the postseason, and he finished the 2006 season with over 213 consecutive shutout minutes prior to the national title game shootout.
Sophomore Tyler Stromberg started 4 games as a 2006 freshman, earning valuable experience in goal to help provide quality depth behind Crawford. Stromberg shut out each of his first 2 opponents and made 5 saves to help preserve a double-overtime scoreless draw with Westmont last season. Senior Zach Baker provides additional depth and an experienced hand to the Cougar goal.
Five of Azusa Pacific’s 7 non-conference foes were NAIA regional playoff participants in 2006, including 3 programs whose seasons wrapped up on the wrong end of a regional playoff penalty kick shootout.
Azusa Pacific opens the season at this weekend’s Heritage Club Classic hosted by Golden State Athletic Conference rival Westmont College, where the Cougars will open with Northwestern (Iowa) College, the 2006 NAIA Region III runner-up.
The Cougar Classic, a 2-day event that kicks off the home portion of the schedule for Azusa Pacific, is scheduled for Friday and Saturday, Sept. 7-8. The opening day of the Cougar Classic will feature the return of every head coach in the 35-year history of the Azusa Pacific men’s soccer program.
Up next is a trip to Columbia, Ky., where they join the Cougar women for a pair of matches Sept. 14-15 at Lindsey Wilson College against the host Blue Raiders and an additional opponent. The men will square off with University of the Cumberlands (Ky.), a Region XI semifinalist in 2006 on Friday, Sept. 14, before taking on 2006 NAIA Tournament participant Lindsey Wilson on Saturday, Sept. 15.
The non-conference schedule wraps up with a final home tune-up on Saturday, Sept. 22, when the Cougars host NAIA Region V semifinalist Hannibal-LaGrange (Mo.), a 16-3-1 squad in 2006.
From there, the always-challenging Golden State Athletic Conference slate takes over, beginning with a Tuesday, Sept. 25 visit to Fresno Pacific. The Cougars’ conference home opener is Saturday, Sept. 29 against San Diego Christian, 1 of 3 consecutive home games. Azusa Pacific wraps up the regular season with a visit to Vanguard on Saturday, Oct. 27.