AZUSA, Calif. -- Azusa Pacific struck quickly for 3 first-half scores under a scorching sun that pushed temperatures into the triple digits, and the NAIA’s No. 24-ranked Cougars cruised to a 4-0 win over a listless Fresno Pacific squad that was ranked No. 2 in the NAIA.
The offensive explosion could not have come at a better time for Azusa Pacific, because the victory opens the Cougars’ Golden State Athletic Conference title defense with a win. After scoring just 4 goals through its first 5 games of the season, the resurgent Cougars have found an offensive groove, running their scoring tally to 13 goals over the last 3 games while improving to 4-2-2 overall.
“This was just huge,” Cougar head coach Phil Wolf said. “Whenever you match 2 really tough teams like this, you can play great and come out with a loss, and you’re sitting on zero points and you’re down in the table. It’s always really nice psychologically to get off to a good start. It’s a huge game for our team that’s still trying to find its way a little bit.”
Senior defender Beau Hayden caught the Fresno Pacific defense off-guard in the ninth minute, sending a long free kick from nearly 40 yards out in the midfield to the front of the goal. Freshman midfielder Andrew Kirby finished off Hayden’s perfect set-up, heading the ball past Sunbirds goalkeeper Brandon Cave from 10 yards out to give Azusa Pacific the stunning go-ahead score less than 10 minutes into the contest.
“When the ball was played in, nobody was marking me and no one was around me,” said Kirby, describing his first collegiate scoring tally. “Beau hit a great ball, right to my head and right in stride. I thought it was going to go over (the crossbar), but it went in somehow. We know Fresno Pacific is a really good side – they’re nationally-ranked, and we hadn’t been, so we came in fired up.”
In the 17th minute, senior defender Jared Karkas took the ball into the penalty box on a run that ended with Karkas being taken down by a Fresno Pacific defender. Karkas buried the ensuing penalty kick, going low to the left while Cave dove to the right, and the Cougars enjoyed a 2-0 lead.
Another Azusa Pacific score pushed the margin to 3-0 less than 30 minutes into the game on a well-executed corner kick from sophomore midfielder Brett Taylor. Taylor’s cross to the near post found the feet of junior midfielder Eric Winblad, who flicked the ball forward to freshman forward Nathan Nienhuis, who had entered the game less than 7 minutes earlier. Nienhuis and his defender fell to the ground while battling for the ball, and Nienhuis was able to lift the ball over Cave for the score, his second goal of the season.
“I just cut towards the near post, and me and my defender were shoulder to shoulder,” Nienhuis said. “Eric flicked it, and as it came down I kind of stepped on the ball. We both hit the deck, and I saw the keeper on the ground too, so I just tried to scoop it and do whatever I could to get it in there.”
The advantage held up through the end of the opening half, with Azusa Pacific piling up a 9-4 shots advantage while building up its 3-goal lead over a Fresno Pacific side that had only surrendered a single goal in its first 5 games of the year. The Sunbirds, who opened GSAC play Saturday with a strong 3-0 result over Point Loma Nazarene, drop to 1-1 GSAC, 5-1 overall.
“We knew they were probably more skilled than us, but we (thought we) could out-work them and get them tired, and it worked,” Nienhuis said. “For me, coming off the bench is awesome, because I can bring a little more speed, intensity and energy when everyone else is getting tired. Our first goal was in the first 10 minutes, and normally that doesn’t happen. The first 10, 15 minutes is when the pace of the game is set, and a goal changes everything. They were tired, and we just kept running at them and it seemed to discourage them.”
In the second half, it again took less than 15 minutes for Azusa Pacific to light up the scoreboard once more, as the Cougars converted a set piece into a goal. Karkas sent a free kick that hugged the ground from about 25 yards out, just outside the left corner of the box. Winblad one-timed it from 12 yards out to the near post for the score, giving the Cougars a 4-0 lead with just over 30 minutes to play.
“Formation-wise, we’ve gotten our players into their best roles, but the reality is, if you came to watch us in training, you would see we have a number of guys who can finish,” Wolf said. “We have a number of guys who can take chances. As much as I’ve been saying all along that we’ve had our lumps along the way, but once this team found its way, I thought this was going to be a good team and I think we’re starting to see that now. I feel good about us, we just need to keep staying hungry and keep trying to improve.”
Fresno Pacific managed just 3 shots on goal, and all were stopped by senior goalkeeper James Crawford, who posted his third shutout of the season and lowered his goals-against average to 0.41. The Cougars registered an 18-9 advantage in total shots and took 9 corner kicks to the Sunbirds’ 3.
“Coach has done a great job in practice of getting drills together where we do combination play, and he’s always taught us to look forward to play off the striker,” Nienhuis said. “It’s huge to have guys up top to check to, and we also have 3 guys in the middle we can play it off to, and we can just spin and go. It’s almost like a transition game, where you just run at them and run at them. Of course, when you get a few goals, confidence starts building, and it’s nice when they just keep coming.”
Azusa Pacific returns to action on Saturday, Oct. 4, with a visit to San Diego Christian, the first of 3 consecutive road contests for the Cougars.