OLATHE, Kan. -- The NAIA’s top-seeded Azusa Pacific advanced to its third straight national semifinals after scoring 3 second-half goals to erase a 1-0 halftime deficit in a 3-1 quarterfinal win over eighth-seeded Fresno Pacific Saturday night at the 49th Annual NAIA Men’s Soccer National Championship.
The foe was familiar, the result similar to the regular-season meeting between the conference rivals, a 1-0 Azusa Pacific win in the Cougars’ Golden State Athletic Conference opener Sept. 25 in Fresno. Sixth-seeded Concordia’s quarterfinal win over 19th-seeded Embry-Riddle (Fla.) earlier in the afternoon assured the GSAC of sending 2 teams to the semifinals.
“To play like that against a rival is just fantastic,” said Cougar head coach Phil Wolf. “Top to bottom, the GSAC is the best there is in the NAIA. I thought this tournament deserved to have 3 Region II teams in, and I really think our conference has done a great job preparing us for this level.”
Senior forward Steven Lenhart provided the game-winner, heading junior defender Beau Hayden’s cross from the right side to give the Cougars a 2-1 lead in the 63rd minute. Lenhart also headed in the game-winner in the regular-season victory over the Sunbirds.
“That’s a world-class header,” said Wolf. “There aren’t too many players anywhere who can make that header, but he’s a warrior and he’s been in tons of wars. That’s a guy who’s been through a lot of front-line battles. He knows what it takes to perform at this level, and he continues to do it.”
Sophomore forward Mike Wilson a 76th-minute substitution for Lenhart, took less than 5 minutes to put the game on ice. Wilson knocked in junior defender Jared Karkas’ service from the left side past Fresno Pacific goalkeeper Brandon Cave with just over 10 minutes remaining in the game.
Fresno Pacific scored the opening half’s only goal following an Azusa Pacific foul deep in Cougar territory. Amaury Nunes’ free kick slammed off the left post and made its way to the feet of Pablo Campos, whose shot deflected off a defender into the goal to give the Sunbirds a 1-0 lead, the team’s sixth goal in just over 120 minutes of NAIA Tournament action after Friday’s 5-2 second-round win over Rio Grande (Ohio).
“I was a little bit surprised with how they played tactically against us,” said Wolf. “I figured they had been rolling right along, and we had struggled in the first game here. They took a more defensive posture than I expected, especially after they scored the goal.”
Now armed with a lead, Fresno Pacific sat back and fended off a Cougar attack that fired 9 shots to the Sunbirds’ 5 in the first half. The Sunbirds were issued 3 yellow cards in less than 4 minutes just before senior forward Sven Simon scored what would have been the equalizer had he not been caught just a step offside by the Fresno Pacific back line.
“I just told them to keep believing,” said Wolf. “I thought we were the better team in the first half, but we were down one-nil. You just have to keep believing and stay positive. I wanted us to gain possession deeper in their half. We had a lot of possession in the back, but we never really got into them. I felt if we pushed it deeper into their half we would get more joy.”
On the restart following another Fresno Pacific booking, Karkas delivered a cross from the left side that came in low to the feet of Lenhart. A Fresno Pacific defender reached the ball first but knocked it past Cave into the Sunbirds net for a game-tying own goal in the 59th minute. With the score tied at 1-1 just 2 minutes later, Karkas drilled a low free kick from 19 yards out that skipped just wide right of the goal.
“(We didn’t get frustrated because we knew) we were doing the right thing,” said Lenhart. “We went in with the mentality that even if we went down 1-0, we needed to keep fighting. We knew they would get tired and weren’t going to work as hard as us. We just stuck to what we do well. When we work hard, that’s what usually wins out for us.”
With the win, Azusa Pacific advances into Monday’s semifinals, where the 18-1-1 Cougars will meet a Simon Fraser (B.C.) squad that is 17-1-1 on the season and has won 13 in a row, including 8 consecutive shutouts. Fresno Pacific, 1 of 3 GSAC representatives in the 20-team national tournament field, bows out of the tournament with a final record of 19-3-1 overall record. The Sunbirds suffered 2 of their 3 defeats to Azusa Pacific.
Concordia will face 10th-seeded Auburn Montgomery (Ala.) in Monday’s other semifinal.