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A Fitting Tribute

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October 3, 2007
Shaun Sandbloom
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The NAIA’s No. 2-ranked Azusa Pacific men’s soccer team entered Wednesday afternoon’s contest against Westmont with an unbeaten 9-0 record and with the knowledge that this could very well be their biggest challenge of the regular season. However, the Cougars also stepped onto the field carrying the weight of a heavier burden on their shoulders. Azusa Pacific men’s soccer alum Sean O’Connor (1980-83), passed away last week after battling brain cancer for the past year.

O’Connor wore jersey number 11 as he patrolled the midfield when the Cougars beat Westmont on home grass for the first time in Azusa Pacific history, a 1-0 win in 1982 in which O’Connor scored the game’s lone goal. Senior midfielder Brandon Stirm, the Cougars’ current number 11, who will wear a black armband on his sleeve for the remainder of the 2007 season in memory of O’Connor, wore the armband for the first time Tuesday.

It was Stirm himself who scored the golden goal that lifted Azusa Pacific to an unforgettable 3-2 overtime victory over Westmont Wednesday afternoon, sealing the win, and the day’s commemoration, in Cougar history forever.

“I really feel for his family, so I guess this is the least I could do,” Stirm said. “We wanted to win, and this was the best way to do it. It’s crazy to think that he was the first guy to win it here, and I just happened to do it today. You don’t plan for these kinds of things. They just happen.”

Stirm’s goal was just one part of a dramatic match that put the Cougars in danger of tasting defeat for the first time this season. With only 4 minutes left in the first half, Westmont senior midfielder Johnny Alcaraz sent a blistering shot from 25 yards outside the Cougar goal that sped past Azusa Pacific goalkeeper James Crawford’s hands before sneaking in under the crossbar.

That goal was enough to spark Azusa Pacific’s offense into action, and the Cougars finished with 17 shots on the day to Westmont’s 5. The Cougars finally got on the board in the 54th minute after senior forwards Steven Lenhart and Sven Simon crafted an offensive run that got past Westmont’s final line of defense. Before the Cougars could get a shot off, Lenhart was brought down in the penalty box between a pair of Westmont defenders to set up an Azusa Pacific penalty kick. Simon took the kick and knotted the game up at 1-1.

About 8 minutes later, the Warriors went back up by a goal when when freshman forward Dan Sargent crossed a ball in to junior midfielder Jake Joyner, who headed it again just over Crawford.

“That second goal was such a soft goal to give up,” head coach Phil Wolf said. “You tie it up at 1-1, and you feel good about the game and then all of a sudden you’re back down. It’s brutal. But the guys fought, and I think we were fortunate to come out of the day with 3 points. I think a fair result would have been a point apiece.”

The Cougars’ offense was held off for another 12 minutes before junior defender Jared Karkas found a shot from the left corner of the Warriors’ goal from nearly 25 yards out. Instead of crossing it, Karkas bent a sharp ball that beat Westmont’s goalkeeper to the far post before bouncing into the net.

History has had a sense of repeating itself when the words “home” and “overtime” go together in an Azusa Pacific men’s soccer game. Last season, the Cougars beat Biola and Vanguard in overtime, and both golden goals were scored on the south goal at the Cougar Soccer Complex, and just 2 and a half weeks ago, Azusa Pacific added another golden goal on the same goal in a 1-0 win over Hannibal-LaGrange. Stirm again found the back of the south goal in extra time, collecting a deflected shot 10 yards off the goal and knocking it back in to end the game a few seconds shy of 7 minutes into overtime.

“I always want to attack towards [the north goal] but everyone kept telling me we need to go toward [the south goal] because that’s the one we always score on,” Wolf said.

Wednesday afternoon’s match added to a seasoned rivalry between two very good GSAC soccer teams. By having Stirm score the game-winner, the meaning of the entire game went deeper in respect to the competition between the 2 programs and the community surrounding Azusa Pacific and O’Connor’s family.

“I don’t know if you call it interesting or what,” Wolf said. “I don’t think it was necessarily coincidental that Brandon scored that last goal. I believe in stuff like that. I hope that, in a small way, wearing that black band and having Brandon score that goal, that his wife and his girls would know that they were in our hearts and that we were thinking of Sean. There’s no greater win than an overtime win and I think it was the best way we could honor the O’Connors through a game.”

The Cougars trail Westmont in the all time series 28-12-3, but Azusa Pacific is now 10-6-1 since 1995 against the Warriors, with 15 of those 17 contests ending in a 1-goal margin or a draw.

“This rivalry goes a lot deeper than just me and my team,” Wolf said. “It’s a lot of the older folks that push the Azusa Pacific-Westmont rivalry, because for the longest time, [Westmont] was on top. The rivalry goes a lot deeper. It doesn’t matter what they have, it doesn’t matter what we have. It’s always going to be a good game.”

With the win, Azusa Pacific extends its winning streak to 10 games, the longest to start a season in program history, and the Cougars are now 3-0 in GSAC play. Westmont drops to 5-4 overall, 1-3 in conference play. Azusa Pacific remains home for a third straight game when the Cougars host California Baptist Saturday afternoon at 1 p.m.