It’s not about winning.
After guiding Azusa Pacific to the top of the NAIA men’s soccer landscape, becoming just the third program in the NAIA to reach 3 straight national title games since 1981, Cougar head coach Phil Wolf tries to tell you his program isn’t about winning.
That can’t be true, you say, immediately writing it off as just another sports cliché. Now you expect to hear him tell you they just want to take it one game at a time, that on a given day, any team can beat another, and that no single game is any more important than another.
There has to be some reason for Azusa Pacific’s recent success. How else does a program go from appearing in just 1 national tournament in its program history to playing for all the marbles in 3 straight seasons?
Perhaps you could point to the defense and its single-season record 13 shutouts in 2007. Or maybe it’s the pair of All-American strikers who have combined for 80 goals over the past 3 years. Maybe it’s a midfield that features a pair of 4-year starters who help keep everything together.
But surely, it has to be that insatiable drive to win, to be the last team standing in the final game, doesn’t it?
You ask again – isn’t it really about winning?
Again, Wolf’s response: It’s not about winning.
Is that even possible? You’ve seen them play, and you’ve seen them win. You’ve seen them advance to 3 straight NAIA championship games. If it’s not about the result, what is Azusa Pacific men’s soccer all about?
The answer hasn’t come in 21 games this season, and it won’t come in the 90 minutes of action tonight, either.
One answer sits 1,322 miles away in the depths of the Felix Event Center, inside the Cougars’ locker room. Inside that room is a brick wall. Right now, that wall has 18 bricks, each one representing a part of the story that is the 2007 Azusa Pacific men’s soccer team. Three bricks are already packed away for the journey back home following the conclusion of the tournament, and a fourth will be passed out tonight to complete the brick wall.
As Wolf and assistant coach Dave Blomquist set their goals for the season, they wanted a visual representation of how to look at the year. Blomquist came up with the idea of building a brick wall.
After each game, Wolf gives the brick representing that day’s game to an individual, who carries it back to the locker room to put in the wall. After Saturday’s win against Fresno Pacific, Wolf awarded the brick to the program – to the 30 men on the 2007 roster, to the friends and family of the players and to the support staff of the Cougar soccer program. The “program brick” will be returned to Azusa by senior midfielder Elijah Mwansanga, who helped lead the Cougars to nearly-flawless execution of its game plan to control possession throughout the game in a 3-1 win over one of its fiercest Golden State Athletic Conference rivals.
Two bricks stand out – Point Loma Nazarene and Westmont. Didn’t that 1-1 draw at Point Loma Nazarene snap the program-record 14-game winning streak, and didn’t eighth-seeded Westmont post a 2-1 upset in the first round of the NAIA Region II Playoffs? Who wants to remember those bricks?
“If you don’t include the losses, you lose the significance,” says Blomquist. “Each brick is important on its own as a piece of the wall, but to have a solid brick wall, you need every brick in place. Seeing that every day is a big deal, because it reminds us of what we’re trying to accomplish this season.”
Another answer happens just before the opening whistle, as the Azusa Pacific bench gathers on their knees in a huddle next to the sideline.
Senior Rhoman Goyenechea leads the group in a brief devotion or Scripture reading as 11 of their teammates spread out to their starting positions. The diminutive 5-foot-4 midfielder has played in only 4 games this season and scored the only goal of his career in the second half of an 8-0 blowout of San Diego Christian in 2006. He leads the group in prayer just before the opening whistle, asking for protection from injuries and for their teammates on the field to perform to the best of their abilities.
The group refers to itself as the “best bench in the nation,” representing not only their belief in the depth of this 2007 squad, but also in their attitude as a group towards the way they are utilized individually by the Cougar coaching staff.
“Our success is not because of each individual skill or each individual person’s ability,” says Goyenechea. “Coach has encouraged and helped us realize that success needs to come from all of us, whether or not we play. On the field and off the field, you give up your rights for the guys. Your time will come, and you can shine."
Yet another answer sits in the stands, as several of last year’s seniors lead the crowd of Azusa Pacific supporters.
Dustin McBride came back from ministry in Zambia to be with his former teammates for a week, and fellow 2006 seniors Damon Brooks, Donny Dequine and Mike Micek have returned to show their support for Azusa Pacific.
“The more players are getting invested and buying into it, the more they’re going to give back to the program,” says Wolf. “I think this is their way of giving back. If it’s all about winning, then you’ve missed the whole boat. It’s really all about who’s going to stand in my wedding. That’s what it’s about, and these guys have created those relationships. This is their way of giving back to us, to show up and cheer us on and be as excited about it as we are. That means the world to the guys.”
And another answer is the circle around the number 19 on Azusa Pacific’s official roster.
Senior midfielder Danny Sundberg started 1 game for Azusa Pacific in his entire 4-year career. He had appeared in 8 of the Cougars’ 18 games heading into the 2007 national tournament, and when it came time for his parents to make travel arrangements to Olathe to watch their son finish out his career, Sundberg convinced them to stay home.
“Historically, I haven’t played much,” says Sundberg. “If my parents come to watch and I don’t play, I feel kind of embarrassed. I didn’t think I would play at all, even though there were some good tipoffs that I might start. It was all fairly recent, so I never really knew until Coach told me face-to-face a few hours before the first game that I’d be starting.”
“I was obviously quite happy about it, considering this year the only time I’d play was when we were ahead by 3 or 4 goals. Starting games of this importance is what I’ve been working for the last 4 years. I was so excited when I knew I was going to play. I prayed a lot that I would play like I’ve always known how to play and to play with peace, love and joy.”
Sundberg performed well in the Cougars’ 3-1 win over tournament host MidAmerica Nazarene (Kan.), and he solidified his spot in the starting lineup with solid efforts in Azusa Pacific’s next 2 wins over Fresno Pacific and Simon Fraser. He even drew the ire of the Simon Fraser goalkeeper for an aggressive tackle in the box, earning himself an intense confrontation with the goalkeeper and a brief discussion from the referee.
“I played last year in the national tournament, and I remember it being totally overwhelming and extremely fast,” says Sundberg. “I felt like I was really behind. Since starting the last few games, it has felt totally normal. It wasn’t anything overwhelming, and I felt more fit than the people I was playing against. I’m surprised that I’m more well-suited than I thought I would be.”
Perhaps the question is best answered with Azusa Pacific’s team motto of “My God, My Team, Myself.”
Graduate Mike Micek, who played in 29 total games over a 4-year career, brought that motto to the team as a way to represent the order of priorities each player should have. As a player who only started 7 times his entire career, Micek could have shown disappointment in his playing time. Instead, he brought this motto into a program that now lives by it.
“It’s not as much the words as it is the actions,” says senior forward Sven Simon. “It all comes down to team unity. We have to go somewhere, and we can only achieve it together. Sometimes a certain player gets it, sometimes the whole team gets it, but to me it symbolizes that whatever we do, we do it all together. There’s no star, we just do it all together.”
Sundberg himself used Micek as a role model to continue working hard, even to the end of his final regular season, earning the starting nod for the most important games of his collegiate career.
“My biggest problem the last couple of years is that I had very little confidence in soccer or in myself,” says Sundberg. “Not playing at all didn’t help with that situation, but for some reason in the last month or so, I suddenly got all my confidence back and started playing pretty well.”
“What got me through it was the people – stories like Mike Micek and Rhoman Goyenechea. Every day, they knew they weren’t going to play either, but their attitude was 100 times better than mine. I would look at them and wonder what the difference was between me and them, and I had to try and figure it out. I look at Mike and Rhoman, and they are some of the finest people I’ve ever met in my life, and if they can do it, I should be doing likewise because they’re probably doing it for the right reasons.”
The story of the 2007 Azusa Pacific men’s soccer team isn’t just about a brick wall. It isn’t about a pre-game devotion or a group of alumni supporting their friends from the stands, and it isn’t even about a catchy team motto or a real-life fairy tale coming true for a hard-working senior.
Azusa Pacific men’s soccer is about rolling countless stories just like them into an improbable tale of dominance that is made more rewarding for the manner in which it’s been achieved. You can choose to focus on a single story, but you’ll miss out on a much greater story.
After tonight’s national title game, 30 players representing Azusa Pacific will stand together as one and accept one final brick, but the lasting reward will not be passed out following the game. The true measure of success of Azusa Pacific soccer is in the relationships created between teammates who consider themselves brothers, who united as one with a common purpose to achieve a common goal.
It’s not about winning.
It’s about “My God, My Team, Myself.”