COLUMBIA, Ky. -- Azusa Pacific got what it asked for.
Cougar head coach Phil Wolf has made an annual tradition of traveling throughout the nation to face top-level competition within the NAIA, and Saturday’s visit to 7-time NAIA champion Lindsey Wilson (Ky.) certainly gave his squad the challenge it craved.
Knotted in a scoreless draw for over 107 minutes, it seemed the NAIA’s No. 4-ranked Cougars would head home unblemished after a draw with the No. 5-ranked Blue Raiders, but also without the 2 wins it sought after yesterday’s 4-0 win over Cumberlands (Ky.).
Instead, midfielder Ryan Cheek delivered a perfect cross from the right side to the far post, where Cougar forwards Sven Simon and Steven Lenhart awaited an opportunity to end the game.
“I was going to go outside,” said Cheek, “but I just took it inside, saw Steve and Sven at the far post, and I whipped it in pretty hard.”
Simon let the ball play long on the bounce, then beat Lindsey Wilson goalkeeper Glen Fox back across the right side with 2:57 remaining in the final overtime period.
“I just turned around and everyone was sprinting right at me,” said Simon of the postgame celebration in the corner by the Cougar bench. “It was awesome to see my whole team, because it’s not about me. The whole team worked its tail off for over 100 minutes, and I was just fortunate to put it away.”
The victory gave Azusa Pacific its first-ever victory over the Blue Raiders outside of California, as 3 of the Cougars’ 4 trips to the NAIA Tournament ended in defeats to Lindsey Wilson in 1996, 2004 and 2005.
“It’s bittersweet because the last 2 times we lost (to Lindsey Wilson) were in the (national) quarterfinal and the final,” said Cheek. “It’s a big win for us, because they’ve kind of had our number the last couple of years. This has been a great weekend for us.”
The Cougars, who outshot the Blue Raiders by a 20-7 margin, had numerous opportunities throughout regulation, as well as in each overtime period, but Lindsey Wilson utilized a speedy midfield to limit the Cougars’ ability to possess the ball for extended periods of time.
“We knew they had a ton of great players and that they weren’t going to give in whatsoever,” said Simon. “Even though they had the ball more, I felt we had the better chances again today. I don’t think it matters who has the ball more, as long as we’re creating chances.”
For a significant portion of the second half, Lindsey Wilson frustrated an Azusa Pacific squad that seemed to lack patience in building an attack. Instead, the Blue Raiders took advantage of its extra personnel in the back to regain control and slowly build for the next attack.
“They definitely picked up the tempo in the second half,” said Wolf. “I knew we’d be able to handle their running in the first half, but I thought it might be the second half where we might lose our way. When they picked up the tempo, it changed the game some, but the boys held it and did well.”
Over the final 20 minutes of regulation, as well as the majority of both overtime periods, Azusa Pacific regained its momentum, creating several quality scoring chances.
With 5 minutes left in the first overtime, Lenhart headed a cross towards the top of the goal, where Fox saved it just underneath the crossbar, and Simon had a breakaway chance stopped by Fox on a low strike from the right side.
Goalkeeper James Crawford registered his third shutout in 4 games this season.
For 4 straight seasons, Azusa Pacific has won 8 of the 9 regular-season games in which it has played at least 2 time zones away from California. The Cougars posted road wins over Berry (Ga.) and Thomas (Ga.) in 2004, won 4 of 5 in 2005 in contests in Indiana, Illinois and Oklahoma, then won a pair of games over Auburn Montgomery and Mobile in a visit to Alabama in 2006.
“Lindsey is the best NAIA program in men’s soccer,” said Wolf. “You can’t pretend that’s not true. They’re the standard, and you measure yourself up against them. We know we’re as good as the top of the NAIA, but I don’t know how much of a statement this makes – I think statements are made in the national tournament. Here they are just games.”
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 6-0 on the season, while Lindsey Wilson drops to 5-1. The Cougars are back in action next Saturday, Sept. 22, when they host Hannibal-LaGrange (Mo.) in the final non-conference tune-up before Golden State Athletic Conference play begins the following week.