FULLERTON, Calif. -- Two years ago, a loss to Hope International ultimately cost Azusa Pacific the Golden State Athletic Conference title. With the end of this season’s conference schedule in sight and its GSAC title hopes still within its own control, the NAIA’s No. 12-ranked Cougars finally broke through late in the first half with an Eric Winblad goal and cruised to a 3-0 win over Hope International Tuesday afternoon.
With the win, Azusa Pacific sits 2 points behind GSAC leader Concordia, which wrapped up its GSAC season this afternoon with a 2-1 win over Point Loma Nazarene. A conference win is worth 3 points in the standings, a tie worth 1 point, so the Cougars must win Saturday’s regular season finale against Vanguard in order to clinch back-to-back GSAC championships. A tie would result in Concordia winning the conference for the third time in the past 4 seasons, and a loss would secure the GSAC crown for Vanguard, which shared the 2004 GSAC championship with Azusa Pacific but has never won the conference title outright. Vanguard must also defeat San Diego Christian, which is 0-8 in GSAC play, Wednesday night in Costa Mesa in order to have a chance to win the GSAC title Saturday.
In the 1-0 upset in 2006, Azusa Pacific out-shot Hope International, 26-7, but an 18th-minute goal gave the Royals the lead they needed, and they successfully defended their goal over the final 70-plus minutes to pull off the upset over the Cougars, who were ranked No. 2 in the NAIA at the time. Azusa Pacific finished 2 points behind 2006 GSAC champion Concordia, and a victory over Hope International would have provided the Cougars with the 3 points that would have clinched the conference title.
“We didn’t make it a big deal,” said Cougar assistant coach Dave Blomquist, filling in for head coach Phil Wolf who was unable to attend the match. “We don’t like to make past defeats too much of a motivating factor. This is such a new, young team, that we really wanted to focus on what we needed to do. For the players that were on the field 2 years ago, it was nice to go back down there and get the result we wanted.”
This time around, Azusa Pacific put up a 20-4 margin in total shots, including a 9-1 difference in the opening half. The Cougars’ first 7 tries were all off the mark, with the eighth shot right at Hope International goalkeeper Matt Fike forcing an easy save. However, Winblad found a seam deep in the Royals defense in the 41st minute, dribbling from the right side across the top of the penalty box towards the middle of the field before unleashing a 15-yard rocket between defenders. Fike had no chance to stop the drive, which settled in the right side of the net, and Azusa Pacific carried the 1-0 lead into halftime.
“Eric’s goal was very big to get before the break,” Blomquist said. “We’ve had some similar games this year, where we’ve had a lot of the play, we’ve created chances, and yet gone into halftime 0-0. (The goal) gave us a little more ease in what we were doing, kept our confidence high, and made us believe that if we kept playing well and kept creating chances, we were going to score.”
Less than 4 minutes into the second half, sophomore forward Alex Earl nearly doubled the lead when his left-footed laser from 23 yards out slammed off the right post back into a startled Fike, but the rebound off the goalkeeper bounced a yard wide of the goal. Azusa Pacific blasted 5 more shots in a span of less than 5 minutes later in the half, 3 straight of which sailed high over the crossbar, but junior forward Mike Wilson put away his first goal of the season in the 69th minute to push the lead to 2-0. Freshman forward Vini Dantas sent in a cross from the left side to Wilson, who stood about 10 yards in front of the goal at the near post. With his back to the goal, Wilson went up and flicked a header backwards past Fike to the far post for the score.
Winblad registered the assist on Azusa Pacific’s final score in the 81st minute, sending a ball into the top of the box to freshman forward Nathan Nienhuis. The ball deflected off a defender to the feet of Nienhuis, who took a touch to the left and drilled a 15-yard strike for his fourth goal of the year.
“We’re not always sure where the goal is going to come from,” Blomquist said. “We have a lot of players that are capable of scoring, but we never know on a given day who’s going to get the goal. It’s a good thing to know about your team, that if one person doesn’t score on a given day, there’s still a handful of guys who are going to be able to do it for you.”
Saturday’s clash with Vanguard kicks off at 12 p.m., and it will be followed by a 2:30 p.m. women’s soccer contest in which the Azusa Pacific women’s program will attempt to clinch at least a share of its fourth consecutive GSAC title.
The GSAC Men’s Soccer Postseason Tournament, which will determine the conference’s automatic qualifier to the 32-team NAIA Men’s Soccer National Championship field, will have 8 qualifiers and begins with first-round contests on Wednesday, Nov. 5. Information on the GSAC Postseason Tournament and the NAIA’s new direct qualification format that includes opening-round national tournament games played at campus sites will be available on the Cougar Athletics website later this week.