AZUSA, Calif. -- It’s been a long time coming, but Azusa Pacific finally avenged one of the most shocking defeats in program history with a 5-0 victory over Hope International that clinched at least a share of the Golden State Athletic Conference men’s soccer championship for the NAIA’s No. 2-ranked Cougars Tuesday afternoon at the Cougar Soccer Complex.
A year ago, it was none other than Hope International that pulled off a monumental 1-0 upset over an Azusa Pacific squad that was ranked No. 7 nationally at the time. The defeat sent the Cougars stumbling to a 2-2-1 record through the first half of the GSAC campaign.
In retrospect, that stinging defeat actually set the stage for a remarkable run that sent Azusa Pacific to the 2006 NAIA title game and has now culminated with the Cougars’ first conference title since 2004. Over the past 29 games, Azusa Pacific is unbeaten in regulation and overtime play, with the Cougars’ lone defeat coming in last year’s national championship game that was decided by a penalty shootout.
“We wanted to make sure we didn’t come out too soft in this game, so that something like last year didn’t happen to us again,” said junior defender Jared Karkas. “There was definitely some communication from the returning players from last year that they embarrassed us last year, and we needed to show them this year that it was a mistake.”
Senior midfielder Brandon Stirm kicked off his 4-year Cougar career with a conference championship season in 2004, and his early first-half score ensured that his career would both begin and end as a GSAC champion. Just over 10 minutes into the game, Stirm found the back of the net from the left side with a strike to the far post.
In the 28th minute, Stirm played a corner kick short to Karkas, who tapped it right back to the senior midfielder. Stirm’s cross found freshman midfielder Adam Holstein, who headed it past the Hope International goalkeeper for a 2-0 Cougar lead.
Stirm himself struck again just 36 seconds later, advancing through the Royals defense to set up an opportunity from the top of the penalty box. His strike directly at the goal skipped through the goalkeeper’s hands and gave Azusa Pacific a commanding 3-0 lead in the 29th minute.
“Brandon was struggling with his confidence in the beginning of the year, but now he’s confident,” said Cougar head coach Phil Wolf. “He’s playing at a really high level right now. He’s always been a kid who wants to bounce back, and it’s nice to see him taking goals.”
Sophomore forward Mike Wilson started a give-and-go with freshman forward Alex Earl, then finished it off with a strike to the right side that gave the Cougars a 4-0 lead. Earl rounded out the scoring with his first collegiate goal, a diving header in front of the goal that finished off senior midfielder Danny Sundberg’s cross from the right side.
Azusa Pacific goalkeepers Tyler Stromberg and Zach Baker combined for the shutout, as the Cougar defense limited Hope International to just 6 shots, only 1 of which required a save.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 8-0-1 in conference play, 15-0-1 overall, while Hope International drops to 2-7 in GSAC, 8-9 overall. The Cougars’ Saturday visit to Vanguard for the 4 p.m. regular-season finale provides an opportunity for Azusa Pacific to post the only undefeated regular season in program history. Only 1 other Cougar team made it to the final game of the regular season without a defeat, and the 2004 Cougars suffered a 4-3 home defeat to Point Loma Nazarene to finish the regular season.
“We’ve still got 1 more game, and we don’t want to share the title with anyone,” said Karkas. “We want to show everybody that the GSAC championship is ours, and ours alone.”
Azusa Pacific will likely host a 1 p.m. first-round game of the NAIA Region II Playoffs when the 8-team regional tournament begins next Wednesday, Oct. 31. The Cougars’ opponent will be announced following the conclusion of the regular season this weekend.