OLATHE, Kan. -- The first order of business for the NAIA’s top-seeded Azusa Pacific was to end the 8-game shutout streak of fifth-seeded Simon Fraser (B.C.).
When senior forward Steven Lenhart scored in the 69th minute, the Cougars sealed their third straight national title game appearance with a 20-minute defensive stand that sealed the 1-0 win.
“We sat in a little against them trying to protect the lead,” said Cougar head coach Phil Wolf. “We gave them the ball some, and maybe that wasn’t the thing to do, but we knew what was going to come. It’s a great win for our program, but as we know from our experience the last couple years, it’s just the next one, and we’ve got one more. We just need to keep believing things will go for us.”
Senior midfielder Kolt Callaway led Lenhart into a crease deep in the Simon Fraser defense, and Lenhart took a touch to the middle of the box from 20 yards out. He used his left foot to drill a shot that screamed past the goalkeeper and snap the scoreless draw with 21 minutes to play.
“Kolt passed it down, and I was just running as fast as I could,” said Lenhart. “It wasn’t anything special, I just shot it. I didn’t really do much. They were always around us, on our back, and they wouldn’t let us turn. That’s what good defenders do, I guess, but all it takes is one.”
Despite playing into the wind, Simon Fraser pushed forward and took 8 of its 11 total shots in the final 21 minutes of the game, but junior goalkeeper James Crawford and the Cougar defense was up to the task. Crawford made a pair of saves during the final stretch, and 4 additional shots were blocked by Azusa Pacific defenders and never made it to goal.
“They had shut out 8 teams in a row (coming into this game),” said Wolf. “We knew it was going to be tight, and I feel like we can defend pretty well also. We knew it was going to be a 1-goal game, and it lived up to its billing.”
In the final minute, Simon Fraser had 1 shot blocked and took a pair of corner kicks with goalkeeper Thomas Lindley playing forward as an extra attacker. Lindley got the Clan’s final shot off as the final seconds ticked away, with Crawford knocking it away with 5 seconds left. Time expired before the Clan could send the corner kick back into the area, sending the Cougars back into the national title game, where they will meet GSAC rival Concordia on Tuesday night.
“You just hope you’re in the right place at the right time,” said Crawford. “There’s 20 guys right in front of you. I had a couple times where I couldn’t really see the ball, and I had to try to find it through the crowd of people. At the end, I happened to be in the right place at the right time. I had no idea their goalie was up, so I had to take a second look. He took it just like any forward, and after the fact, I thought, ‘Wow, that was the goalie!’ ”
Simon Fraser won the opening coin flip and elected to send Azusa Pacific into a stiff 15- to 20-mph headwind for the opening half, but the Cougars still managed to outshoot Simon Fraser by a 6-2 margin in the first 45 minutes. With the wind at its back for the second half, the Cougars kept the ball on the offensive half, but a strong effort by the Clan defense surrendered very little in the way of quality scoring chances.
“I thought they would have a couple more quality chances than they did in the first half, but we were really organized in the back,” said Crawford. “We didn’t really allow them to get much space, and we really tried to use the wind against them. At halftime, we felt pretty confident that with the wind, we’d really be able to pound at them. It didn’t go quite to plan, but it made us fight more.”
Sophomore midfielder Dana Yoshizu’s strike off the far post from the right side nearly gave Azusa Pacific the goal it had been looking for just 12 minutes into the second half, but a Simon Fraser defender was able to clear the ball off the line as it rolled back across the goal mouth. Junior defender Jared Karkas set up the chance after dribbling up the left side and cutting in towards the middle before sending it from left to right to a wide-open Yoshizu along the right side of the box.
Azusa Pacific had several near-misses in the first half, as well. In the 18th minute, Lenhart emerged with the ball out of a scramble for possession in the right midfield. As he advanced forward, he tried to squeeze a ball through the retreating Simon Fraser defense to senior midfielder Danny Sundberg for an open look in the middle of the box, but it was knocked away before it reached its target. Four minutes later, the Cougars played over the top to senior midfielder Brandon Stirm in the right side of the penalty box. He played it across to senior forward Sven Simon, who went down in a heap with the defender as the ball was controlled by the goalkeeper.
With just 11 minutes left in the first half, junior defender Beau Hayden’s long throw into traffic in the box short of the near post missed the head of senior midfielder Elijah Mwansanga. As Mwansanga went down in the box after some tough, clean defending, the Simon Fraser defender appeared to hit the ball with his hand as he fell down in the box, but no foul was called and the ball was cleared from danger to preserve the scoreless tie.
“They’re a class act,” said Wolf. “I know (Simon Fraser head coach) Dave Elligott well, and he’s a great coach and they have a great team. It was an honor to be out there with him at the same time. It was a battle in the trenches today, that was for sure, but it was a great honor.”
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 19-1-1 on the season, while Simon Fraser’s season ends with a final record of 17-2-1. The latest weather forecast for Tuesday’s 7 p.m. championship calls for partly cloudy skies with temperatures in the mid- to upper-50s and 15- to 25-mph winds.