AZUSA, Calif. -- After leading Azusa Pacific to the NAIA’s top ranking and the first unbeaten regular season in Cougar history, senior forward Steven Lenhart and head coach Phil Wolf were named GSAC Player and Coach of the Year. Azusa Pacific swept the conference awards for the first time since 2001, when Matt Evans and Wolf received the conference player and coach of the year awards.
“With the schedule we put together and the conference as strong as it is, to be able to run the table through the regular season was just amazing,” said Wolf. “It says a lot about these guys’ consistency that they take care of every game and don’t blow off any game.”
Azusa Pacific was represented by 6 players on the All-GSAC team, the most since that same 2001 season when the Cougars shared the conference title with Westmont and placed 6 players on the all-conference squad in Wolf’s first season at Azusa Pacific.
“All the awards and accolades are really about these guys, and it’s about the team,” said Wolf. “That stuff fades away fast, but it’s all about winning games and being together. That’s always been our focus. Individuals are going to get recognized, but I believe in my heart that I’ve got more than 6 All-GSAC players.”
Lenhart, now a back-to-back All-GSAC pick, scored 7 of his team-high 14 goals in conference play, and 4 of the goals were game-winners. In fact, his other 3 all came in the Cougars’ 4-0 win over Concordia, which was then ranked No. 1 in the NAIA, and his 4-goal performance tied the career-high he set earlier in the season in a 4-2 nonconference win over Cal State San Marcos.
“I don’t think there was any question in anyone’s mind that Steve deserved this award,” said Wolf. “His 4-goal performance against Concordia and his game-winner at Fresno Pacific – those are the second- and third-place teams, so I think it’s done at that point. He was the offensive MVP of last year’s national tournament, so I’m not sure how much he’s improved from last year to now, but he’s just been able to keep it rolling through the season. He’s matured, and he’s more of a man now.”
Joining Lenhart on the All-GSAC team was the other half of the Cougars’ forward tandem, senior Sven Simon. The pair accounted for at least 1 goal in all but 2 of the Cougars’ 17 games this season. Simon earned the all-conference honor for the third straight season after posting a 9-goal, 6-assist regular season that included 4 goals and 2 assists in conference play.
“Sven is a guy who has been an NAIA All-American and he’s been named to the NAIA All-Tournament team each of the past 2 seasons – he’s used to picking up a little hardware,” said Wolf. “He links everything together for us. We haven’t lost too many games when he’s in our (starting) 11.”
Senior midfielder Brandon Stirm’s selection was the third All-GSAC honor of his career, adding to his 2004 and 2006 all-conference awards. Stirm was Azusa Pacific’s points leader in conference play, tying Lenhart for the team scoring lead with 7 goals while adding 3 assists.
Stirm, who sports a black armband on his number 11 jersey in tribute to 1983 Azusa Pacific alum Sean O’Connor, a former Cougar men’s soccer player who wore the number 11 during his playing days and died of cancer in late September, provided the game-winning “golden goal” in a 3-2 overtime win over Westmont. It was just his second goal of the season, but he went on to score 5 more goals over the final 7 games, including 2 each in shutout victories over Biola and Hope International.
“Brandon has had his ups and downs during each season, but he has always finished each year at the top of his game,” said Wolf. “I think his best is still ahead this season. It’s nice to have a technical player who is just a great ball striker and can also serve the ball so well.”
Senior midfielder Kolt Callaway is a first-time All-GSAC recipient after tallying 3 goals in his final collegiate campaign. In Azusa Pacific’s final non-conference tuneup, Callaway’s “golden goal” in the second overtime snapped a scoreless tie and lifted the Cougars to a 1-0 win over Hannibal-LaGrange (Mo.). Callaway then scored the game-winner late in the first half of a 2-1 win over Vanguard in the regular-season finale, completing Azusa Pacific’s first-ever unbeaten regular season.
“For Kolt, this is almost a career-type of honor,” said Wolf. “He’s not flashy, but he’s played in so many big games the last 4 years. Some of what he does is unseen, and I’m glad the other coaches recognized his contributions and he ended up with this honor.”
Junior defender Jared Karkas is another first-time All-GSAC honoree for his efforts anchoring a back line that surrendered just 7 goals all season. In addition, Karkas scored 2 goals and was the GSAC’s assists leader with 10.
“Jared really came into his own last year at the national tournament,” said Wolf. “It might have taken until last year for him to grow up into a leader back there, but he’s always been good going forward. I’m not sure there’s another player in the country who can do what he does at that position.”
Sophomore defender Eric Winblad rounds out the Cougar All-GSAC picks, earning his first selection, as well. Winblad was a key figure in Azusa Pacific’s central defense, helping the Cougars tie the program’s single-season shutout record of 12 set in 1996. Azusa Pacific blanked 6 of its 10 GSAC foes en route to just the fourth unbeaten conference mark since 1994, when the GSAC first expanded beyond 7 teams.
“I think Eric deserves to be considered one of our best players,” said Wolf. “The things he does, he does quietly, but there’s a reason we’ve only given up 7 goals, and both he and (our other center back) Mark Peters are a big part of it.”
Azusa Pacific has clinched the top seed for the upcoming NAIA Region II Playoffs, and the Cougars kicks off the postseason Thursday afternoon against Westmont at 1 p.m.