AZUSA, Calif. -- In a 30-minute span, Wednesday’s battle between the NAIA’s top 2 ranked teams turned into an emphatic statement left by the NAIA’s No. 2-ranked Azusa Pacific, a 4-0 Cougar victory over top-ranked Concordia Wednesday afternoon at the Cougar Soccer Complex. Senior forward Steven Lenhart scored 4 goals, recording his first 3 scores on headers before using his feet to put the final exclamation point on a statement game for the 2-time defending NAIA runner-up Cougars, who had not beaten a No. 1-ranked team since a 1-0 home win over off top-ranked Lindsey Wilson (Ky.) in 1996.
“I told our guys in the pregame that there are certain games in your career that will have an atmosphere like this,” said Cougar head coach Phil Wolf. “This is a special day for our program, in the fact that we were able to go out there and put on a great performance in an environment as good as this facility can make it right now.”
The victory not only gives Azusa Pacific the inside track to the Golden State Athletic Conference title, a crown that has resided with Concordia in each of the past 2 seasons, it ties the Cougars’ program-record winning streak at 14 games. Wednesday’s 4-goal explosion came against the NAIA’s third-rated defense, a Concordia unit that had surrendered just 3 goals in a 13-game season-opening win streak.
Instead, it was Azusa Pacific’s back line that put the clamps on the Jeff Clark-led Concordia attack, limiting the Eagles to just 7 total shots. Three never reached the goal area, deflecting off Cougar defenders, and the other 4 sailed high or wide and were not serious threats to score.
It took Azusa Pacific over 30 minutes to generate its first shot of the game, a Lenhart header right at Concordia goalkeeper Mike Borst, but the Cougars quickly gathered momentum with a patient, relentless attack. Over the next 2 minutes, the Cougars fired 3 more shots at the goal, including a promising flurry from the left side. Lenhart started the exchange with an initial shot that was saved, but senior forward Sven Simon collected the rebound and shot just wide of the goal to keep the game scoreless with just under 12 minutes remaining in the half.
“Possession is a huge part of the game,” said junior central defender Mark Peters. “Whoever has the ball has control of the game. Maybe you can score on the counterattack, but the key objective in the game is to get the ball and control the game, and I thought we did that very well today.”
With just under a minute and a half left in the opening period, junior defender Beau Hayden served the ball in from the right side to Lenhart at the near post, where he beat a Concordia defender to the ball and headed the ball to the far post to give the Cougars a 1-0 halftime lead.
“The one thing that is different about this team more than any team I’ve had here is that if teams really sit in against us, we can whip crosses in at Steve, and there’s no real answer for it,” said Wolf. “On some of those balls, you don’t know if the keeper is even able to get it over him. He’s a great weapon, and he’s a warrior. I’m sure glad he’s on my team.”
Concordia’s best chance to even the game came when Eric Mendoza lined up a free kick from 25 yards out, but his shot sailed directly into the Cougars’ 5-man wall. Jeff Clark’s follow-up shot off the rebound was also deflected away by a defender before reaching junior goalkeeper James Crawford, who did not need to register a save in posting his eighth shutout of the season.
“Each of (Azusa Pacific’s defenders) bring different things to the table, but they’re solid and they read the game so well,” said Wolf. “To limit a player as great as Jeff Clark to just a couple of chances speaks volumes about our back line.”
In the 57th minute, senior midfielder Ryan Cheek put a vicious strike on frame, leaving Borst no option but to tip the ball just over the crossbar for a Cougar corner kick. Senior midfielder Brandon Stirm played the corner kick short to junior defender Jared Karkas, who crossed the ball to the far post for Lenhart to bury another header for a 2-0 Azusa Pacific lead just over 12 minutes into the second half.
“If we gave them an inch and gave up a goal, they would have been right back in the game,” said Karkas. “We knew we had to come out even harder in the second half to make sure that didn’t happen.”
Just over 6 minutes later, Hayden found Lenhart’s head at the back post, where the senior forward completed the hat trick by cashing in the opportunity with his third header goal of the game that extended the Cougar lead to 3-0 in the 64th minute. Lenhart completed the scoring when Karkas found him streaking towards goal for a breakaway in the 71st minute, and this time Lenhart used his feet to put away his fourth goal of the game with just under 20 minutes remaining.
“I was pretty fired up,” said Lenhart. “This was a big game, and we knew what we had to do. This team just creates so many opportunities, and I just took advantage of them today.”
Lenhart’s 4 goals matches the career-high he set in the Cougars’ 4-2 win over Cal State San Marcos Sept. 7, and it ties him with Fresno Pacific’s Adrian Alvarado for the GSAC’s scoring lead with 7 goals in conference play. Lenhart is also the conference’s overall scoring leader with 14 goals in Azusa Pacific’s 14 total games.
“It’s another game in the process for us,” said Wolf. “It’s another game in the story of our season. Hopefully, it’s not the biggest game we’ll play this year. Hopefully, we’ll have several games that are much bigger than this. It’s 1 game, we played well, we won it and now we have Point Loma.”
With the win, Azusa Pacific assumes sole possession of first place in the GSAC standings with 3 games remaining at 7-0 in conference play, and the Cougars improve to 14-0 overall heading into this weekend’s visit to No. 14-ranked Point Loma Nazarene, which brings a 6-1 conference mark into Saturday’s 1 p.m. contest. Concordia drops to 13-1 overall, 7-1 in GSAC play. The Eagles wrap up conference play with a pair of home contests with No. 11-ranked Fresno Pacific and No. 14-ranked Point Loma Nazarene.