SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- The NAIA’s No. 9-ranked Azusa Pacific got single goals in each half from freshmen Nathan Nienhuis and Josh Salas to collect its fifth-straight victory, a 2-0 Golden State Athletic Conference decision over Westmont College Wednesday afternoon on Russ Carr Field
The victory moves the defending conference champion Cougars into second place in the GSAC, a point behind front-running Vanguard University, a 2-1 victor at Point Loma Nazarene University today.
Nienhuis awakened the Cougars from the doldrums with his third goal of the season and his second in the past 3 games with an unassisted rocket into the upper left corner of the net to get the Cougars on the board in the 36th minute. The freshman out of Hudsonville, Mich., kick-started an offense that struggled through much of the first half with an electrifying shot that sent a jolt into the rest of the Cougars.
“Nathan absolutely crushed it and hit a bomb that there was no way their keeper could get,” said Azusa Pacific head coach Phil Wolf. “It was huge goal for us because up to that point the game had been fairly even.”
Indeed it had been. The Cougars only out-shot Westmont by a 5-to-4 count in the opening 45 minutes of play.
“We weren’t playing the way we should or can in the first half,” added Wolf. “So I challenged the guys pretty good at halftime and they responded with a much better second half.
Azusa Pacific eventually outshot Westmont 14-5 overall, which included an 8-1 advantage in the second half.
In the 73rd minute Salas added an insurance goal, his second of the season, an 18-yard shot off a pass fro Ashkon Banihashem. Fellow freshman Vinnie Dantas came into the game in the second half for his first-ever appearance as a Cougar and promptly rifled one of his 2 shots off the post for a near third goal.
“All the freshmen are contributing right now,” added Wolf. “They’re all good players, and to have 2 of them score today is big for us. It’s a confidence booster for everyone on the team to know that we can get goals from anyone.”
After a 1-2-2 start to the season, the Cougars have roared back to win 5 straight, producing 4 shutouts in the process while out-scoring the foe 17-1.
“With so many new and young players I think it took us awhile to find our identity and to know what we were going to go with,” said Wolf. “I kind of knew the beginning was going to be a little rocky, but now that we have found it, the guys have hit a stride.”
Azusa Pacific continues on the GSAC road later this week when they visit California Baptist University in Riverside, Calif., for a 1 p.m. game Saturday.
“This is an important week for us with 2 road games,” added Wolf. “This is a big win to get in Santa Barbara, and if we can another on Saturday that’s 6 huge points on the GSAC road and it would put us in a good position heading into the second half of conference play.”