AZUSA, Calif. -- Junior defender Eric Winblad scored off a header with less than 10 minutes remaining in regulation, finishing Azusa Pacific’s 24th shot of the afternoon to lift the NAIA’s No. 5-ranked Cougars to a 1-0 win over Biola at the Cougar Soccer Complex Saturday afternoon.
Sophomore defender Brett Taylor made a run deep into the right corner and made an outstanding cross to Winblad, who was in an opportune position to convert a 5-yard header to the wide open far post. Winblad’s 81st-minute goal snapped a string of 226 consecutive scoreless minutes over the past 3 games and kept the Cougars unbeaten in Golden State Athletic Conference play.
“It was really frustrating in the first half, having 3 of my shots go wide,” Winblad said. “Biola really packed it in deep, and it was hard for us to penetrate. Coach moved me up in the second half and told me to score, so I did. We got a goal and we didn’t quit.”
Winblad’s game-winner marked the culmination of 80 minutes of near-misses on goal for the Cougars. Azusa Pacific fired a season-high 25 shots, 9 in the opening half and 16 after halftime, but had trouble breaking through on a long-awaited goal despite a multitude of scoring opportunities.
“Soccer is a difficult sport in the way of buildup, anticipating, waiting, hoping and desiring for things to happen,” Cougar head coach Phil Wolf said. “Things don’t always happen in your time. The goal which ended up going in is a huge relief for us and certainly something we are really excited about.”
As the first half was winding down towards its end, the Cougars had a 2-minute sequence of 3 corner kicks and 4 shots which went wide, 2 off surefire headers. Azusa Pacific picked up the intensity in the second half, continuing to find holes in Biola’s strong-willed defensive effort.
In the 61st minute, Taylor was riding on the left side and crossed the ball to junior midfielder Dana Yoshizu, who one-timed it to Winblad on the upper right of the goalbox. Winblad had a clear look but a soft deflection off a Biola defender allowed the keeper to make a glove save on the ground at the near post.
Three minutes later, freshman forward Nathan Nienhuis triggered a booming 25-yard shot which was saved. Biola’s Alex Honore was issued a red card in the 70th minute for an over-aggressive tackle on senior defender Jared Karkas, leaving the Eagles to play a man down for the final 20 minutes.
Karkas heaved a high-arcing 30-yard shot in the 78th minute, which almost tucked underneath the crossbar before a last-second save by Biola goalkeeper Aaron Fenlason. Then in the 80th minute, freshman forward Vini Dantas, who making his first career start, launched a blistering low line drive from 20 yards out which just missed the goal to the right. Another minute after that, Azusa Pacific finally made good on the game-winner with Winblad’s header.
The Cougars extend their current unbeaten streak to 8 games, keyed by a defense which has not allowed a goal in all 6 GSAC matches, a span of 563 consecutive minutes of shutout soccer. Azusa Pacific’s 6 consecutive shutouts now ties the program’s longest shutout streak, originally set in 2001, Wolf’s first season as Cougar head coach.
“The defense has been a strong point for us,” Wolf said. “In any sport, the foundation of a team is your defending. It starts with defense and then you go from there. We’ve got a really solid anchor in our defense. I wish we had a little more in our offensive attack, but right now we’ll take a clean sheet and continue to try to shut out opponents for our victories.”
Senior goalkeeper James Crawford has tallied 6 of the Cougars’ 8 shutouts, picking up 4 in the team’s current streak, posting a 0.29 goals-against average for the season to date. Crawford also has 26 career shutouts, leaving him in sole possession of the program shutouts record established by former Cougar goaltender Scott Strahammer who played from 1998 to 2001.
“I simply do not want to give away any goals,” Crawford said. “Our defense wants to organize and communicate to not give up any easy goals. If we have to give up a goal, we want to make the other team earn it. So far, that hasn’t happened. We’ve been really solid brushing off the cobwebs of our early games, and we’re coming together really well.”
Azusa Pacific’s overall record now stands at 8-2-3, and the Cougars are tied with Vanguard for first in the GSAC at 5-0-1 in conference play. Biola drops to 6-6-1, 1-5-1 in GSAC. The Cougars travel to Irvine on Wednesday, Oct. 22 to take on third-place Concordia (8-5-1, 5-2 GSAC) before returning to the Cougar Soccer Complex on Saturday, Oct. 25, hosting Point Loma Nazarene at 1 p.m., the first of 4 Cougar fall sports hosting games during Azusa Pacific’s Homecoming Saturday.