AZUSA, Calif. -- Freshman forward Vini Dantas’ breakaway goal in the 64th minute was the first of his career, and it bolstered the NAIA’s No. 3-ranked Azusa Pacific to a 2-1 victory over Point Loma Nazarene at the Cougar Soccer Complex Saturday afternoon.
Sophomore forward Alex Earl lofted a midfield cross over the Sea Lion defense to set Dantas up with a 1-on-1 battle with goalkeeper Eric Leboffe. Dantas went to the keeper’s left, and his choice paid off as the ball settled neatly into the back of the goal.
Dantas’ goal salvaged an otherwise forgettable performance, as the Cougars accumulated 3 yellow cards and gave Point Loma Nazarene its goal on a first-half own goal.
“We were really shaky today,” Cougar head coach Phil Wolf said. “Our confidence was rattled throughout the game. We have to find our confidence again. One loss in our league should not make our guys feel like they’re not good players, because they’ve been through way too much stuff together to sit back. We did not have a great performance, but the win is in the books.”
Junior defender Jared Karkas made the first serious strike toward a Cougar goal in the 26th minute. Off a failed clearance on a Sea Lion free kick in the goal box, Karkas walloped a 20-yard unobstructed roller which went wide right by a foot.
Four minutes later, Azusa Pacific emerged with the first goal of the match. Just outside of the goal box, Leboffe moved up to neutralize a Cougar attack. Again, Azusa Pacific benefited from a failed clearance, as Leboffe came outside the box to kick the ball from danger. Instead, the ball deflected back towards the goal off his defender. Junior Eric Winblad, who was applying the pressure that forced the scramble to clear the ball, collected the deflection in front of the empty net and knocked it home from 10 yards out.
“The ball was played through and I knew the goalie was going to come get it,” Winblad said. “I went in to put some pressure in and the goalie slid out. Then, the ball hit off the defender, leaving me with an open net. I just tapped it in.”
The lead was short-lived, however, as another dangerous opportunity developed in front of Azusa Pacific’s goal. Senior goalkeeper James Crawford made a goal-line save on a shot lifted from the left side by Sea Lions midfielder Jason Smith, but a Cougar defender knocked the ball into the goal before it could be cleared from danger, giving Point Loma Nazarene the 1-1 equalizer off the own goal.
The score remained tied at 1-1 through halftime, and Azusa Pacific wasted no time generating scoring opportunities in the second half. Sophomore defender Brett Taylor broke though with a quick shot just 20 seconds into the half and junior midfielder Dana Yoshizu sped past the Sea Lions defense for a direct shot saved by Leboffe in the 63rd minute. Half a minute later, Dantas produced the game-winner.
“It feels good to get my first goal,” Dantas said. “It took a long time (getting to this point), and to be here today and score my first collegiate goal, it’s amazing.”
Playing in his sixth game and making his second start, Dantas took a team-high 4 shots today, including 2 consecutive shots in a span of less than 40 seconds, one off the crossbar, in pursuit of an insurance goal with 10 minutes to go.
“Vini is going to be a really special player here,” Wolf said. “His development is going to take time, and we’re going to need to have patience with his progress. He’s becoming more familiar with collegiate soccer. By the end of his career here, he’s going to be something awesome.”
Azusa Pacific out-shot Point Loma Nazarene, 18-7, and the Cougars rebounded off a 3-1 loss to Concordia earlier in the week.
“This conference is about getting 3 points at home, 1 point on the road and when that’s done, your team will be a good position,” Wolf said. “We all like to play well and get results, but you still need to get the result at the end of the day.”
Azusa Pacific improves to 9-3-3, 6-1-1 in GSAC, while Point Loma Nazarene drops to 6-8-2, 2-5-1 in GSAC. The Cougars kept pace with first-place Concordia, trailing the Eagles by 2 points in the conference standings with just 1 week of regular season action remaining.
Azusa Pacific’s next matchup will be against Hope International in Fullerton on Tuesday at 3:00 p.m., while Concordia finishes their GSAC schedule with a Tuesday visit to Point Loma Nazarene. The Cougars will have one remaining game following Tuesday’s contest, hosting Vanguard at noon on Saturday, Nov. 1, at the Cougar Soccer Complex.