OLATHE, Kan. -- Azusa Pacific made up for the frustration and disappointment of losing 2 straight national title games with the exclamation point of a storybook 2007 national tournament run, posting a 2-0 victory over Golden State Athletic Conference rival Concordia in the 2007 NAIA championship game.
The title is Azusa Pacific’s first-ever in men’s soccer, and it completes a 4-year run that began in exactly the same spot that the Cougars posted the program’s first-ever national tournament victory in 2004. The next year, Azusa Pacific made a run to the title game for the first time in program history, then returned to the title game in 2006 but suffered a heart-breaking defeat to Graceland (Iowa) in penalty kicks after playing 110 scoreless minutes.
“It’s been a lot of work, and we’ve had a lot of disappointment the last couple years,” said an emotional Cougar head coach Phil Wolf. “I felt like we deserved better, and just to have it for tonight is amazing. When I look back at this class of 4-year seniors, I’ll always remember them, just like I’ll always remember the other senior classes. Those guys are every bit as champions as this group, and I’m just so proud of all of them.”
This time, the Cougars wasted no time getting quality scoring chances and putting them on goal, although it wasn’t until just 3 minutes and 20 seconds remained in the opening half when senior forward Sven Simon broke the scoreless deadlock when he finished off a flurry of action in front of the Concordia net with a shot that glanced off a defender and deflected into the goal.
The ball was originally played long over the top to senior forward Steven Lenhart, was able to beat Concordia defender Joel Smith to the header deep in Eagles territory and knock it wide left past charging Concordia goalkeeper Mike Borst. Lenhart knocked the ball across the face of the goal on the ground, where it was temporarily cleared from less than a yard off the line by an Eagles defender. However, the clearance went straight to the feet of senior midfielder Elijah Mwansanga, who took a touch and fired from 18 yards out to the right side.
Borst, who was still scrambling back in position, was able to make the leaping save to his left, but the rebound went directly to Simon, who sent the rebound off the near post and back out in front of the goal. Simon regained possession in front of the goal, dribbled around to a shooting lane from 10 yards out along the left side, then fired again for the go-ahead goal.
The score capped a relentless attacking half by an Azusa Pacific squad that took advantage of having the wind at its back for the opening half, firing shots from every angle for 45 minutes and finishing the period with a 22-0 shots advantage.
Despite heading into the wind for the second half, the Cougars still enjoyed a 6-4 shots advantage after halftime, providing the final margin on the counterattack when freshman midfielder Ashkon Banihashemi’s 72nd-minute laser from the left side gave Azusa Pacific a 2-0 cushion.
“We played solid the whole game,” said Simon. “We started so strong, and we really should have been up by 3 or 4 in the first half because we had so many chances. Once we scored that second goal, even against the wind, I knew we were going to win.”
Concordia’s Jon Carlson sent a knuckling drive directly at Cougar goalkeeper James Crawford, who made the stop and got the ball out into the midfield on the counterattack. It was played forward to Lenhart along the right side, who played it through to Simon at the top of the penalty box along the right side. Simon found Banihashemi alone along the left, and the freshman drilled it into the side netting for just his second collegiate goal.
Despite surrendering a pair of goals, Borst was sensational in goal for Concordia, finishing with 8 saves and turning away numerous Azusa Pacific chances that could have pushed the final margin closer to the Cougars’ 4-0 win in the teams’ regular-season meeting on Oct. 17. Borst punched away a Simon shot that curled from left to right in the 15th minute, setting up back-to-back Cougar corner kicks, and he stopped Jordan Chrzan’s 18-yard drive to the near post at the 36-minute mark in the first half.
“I’m proud of the GSAC,” said Wolf. “I’m proud of the fact that the only reason Fresno Pacific was out of it was because another GSAC team had to beat them. Concordia is a great team, they’re a young team, and they’re going to be right back here. Don (Ebert) is a great coach, and they’re going to be back.”
Eric Mendoza took Concordia’s first shot just a minute and a half into the second half, but the Azusa Pacific defense tightened up and didn’t allow another shot until Carlson’s shot in the 72nd minute that set up the Cougar goal on the counterattack. All 4 Concordia shots were on goal, with Crawford making the save each time.
“I’m so proud of our defense,” said senior All-Tournament defender Jared Karkas. “We worked so hard, and we motivated each other throughout the game, no matter what was going on. We were really disappointed that we gave up 2 goals in this tournament, both off set pieces, and we wanted to make sure we stayed a lot tighter, communicated better and stuck together no matter what.”
With the win, Azusa Pacific wraps up its 2007 campaign with a final record of 20-1-1, tying the program single-season wins record and posting the best winning percentage in Cougar men’s soccer history.
“Winning the championship means a lot, especially for Coach,” said Lenhart. “It’s great to be the first team (in program history) to win one, but I’m more happy for my coach and for what he’s put into the program.”
The shutout was Azusa Pacific’s 14th, breaking the previous program record of 12 set in 1996. The Cougars finished with a 0.49 goals-against average, besting another program mark set in 2000 (0.53).
2007 NAIA Men's Soccer All-Tournament Team:
Mike Borst, Concordia (Ala.), Sr.
Nenad Cudic, Auburn-Montgomery (Ala.), So.
Lucas Barrett, Simon Fraser (B.C.), So.
Pablo Campos, Fresno Pacific (Calif.), Jr.
Steven Lenhart, Azusa Pacific (Calif.), Sr.
Steinthor Thosteinsson, Auburn-Montgomery (Ala.), Fr.
Josh Bennett, Simon Fraser (B.C.), Fr.
Nik Chamberlain, Auburn-Montgomery (Ala.), So.
Jon Fahey, Concordia (Calif.), So.
Elijah Mwansanga, Azusa Pacific (Calif.), Sr.
Luca Bellisomo, Simon Fraser (B.C.), Sr.
Hugh Davey, Embry-Riddle (Fla.), Sr.
Mike MIrzadeh, Concordia (Calif.), Sr.
Eric Winblad, Azusa Pacific (Calif.), So.
Most Valuable Player and Offensive Player of the Tournament:
Steven Lenhart, Azusa Pacific (Calif.), Sr.
Defensive Player of the Tournament:
Mike Borst, Concordia (Calif.), Sr.