AZUSA, Calif. -- The NAIA's No. 9-ranked Azusa Pacific needed another dramatic second-half goal to advance to the championship round of the GSAC Men's Soccer Postseason Tournament, and GSAC Player of the Year Eric Winblad was in the right place to lift the Cougars to a 1-0 victory over The Master's in the GSAC Postseason Tournament semifinals.
In the 76th minute, sophomore defender Brett Taylor drove a cross to the Mustang goal box off a corner kick. Winblad was running toward the post and flicked the ball toward the net. Mustang goalkeeper Kevin Lawson was able to manage a deflection with his arm, but the ball crossed the goal line moments before a Mustang defender came in for an attempted clearance that ended up in the top netting anyway.
Seven of Azusa Pacific’s last 9 games have been decided by a goal or less, including a pair of 1-0 victories this week in the GSAC Postseason Tournament. In 6 of those matches, Azusa Pacific did not score the game-winner until after the 60-minute mark. Despite the struggle to score early goals, the Cougars are on a 5-game winning streak and hold a 12-1-1 record since starting the season at 1-2-2.
"It takes us a lot of time to score a goal," Cougar head coach Phil Wolf said. "We need all 90 minutes to score a goal, and we just have to keep on plugging. Thankfully, we just keep defending and do a great job there. Hopefully, we can get more chances on goal as we move through the playoffs."
On Oct. 14, Azusa Pacific and The Master's played 110 minutes of scoreless action for a double-overtime tie, and the teams continued to dominate on their defensive ends in a scoreless first half. Both squads were effective in eliminating the opponent's offensive attack as only 2 total shots on goal were fired in the first 45 minutes.
"What our team is lacking is urgency, especially in the first half," Winblad said. "In the second half, we are urgent and we create chances because we have to score. We are definitely a second-half team but we need to start our urgency at the beginning of the game."
Senior defender Jared Karkas had 2 opportunities to score the first goal in the first 15 minutes of the second half. Off a free kick in the 55th minute, Karkas hit a powerful 20-yard shot which barely cleared the crossbar. Three minutes later, he booted a challenging spin for the Mustang keeper, who prevented the cross from turning into a goal.
The Master's had its best opportunity to score in the 68th minute. After an Azusa Pacific foul, Mustang forward Jacob Marchesani hoisted a 30-yard free kick to the Cougar right post and senior goalkeeper James Crawford made an astounding glove save on the ground to preserve his eighth shutout of the season.
"With a lot of the GSAC teams, they're really hard-working, and if you give them an opening, they will take it," Crawford said. "They definitely gave a good performance today, and we had our hands full."
Two years ago, on Oct. 18, 2006, Winblad scored his first ever goal against a GSAC opponent in a 3-1 victory over The Master's. In that match, he scored the game-tying goal from a header off a corner kick in the 75th minute. In today's match, he headed a goal off a corner kick in the 76th minute for his second career goal on the Mustangs.
"With a lot of new players this year, here we are winning the GSAC regular season championship and now we are playing for the conference championship and the automatic bid to the national tournament," Wolf said. "It speaks so highly to what these guys have done. It's rebuilding in one sense but we also have veterans still here like Jared and Eric that have played in some really big games. Looking over the course of the season, even though we're young, we have enough guys who know how to win and maybe that will put us over the top."
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 13-3-3 overall and The Master's drops to 11-3-4. The Cougars host Westmont in the GSAC tournament finals on Saturday, Nov. 15, at 2:00 p.m. Last season, Westmont dealt Azusa Pacific its only blemish in its NAIA championship season, as the Warriors pinned a 2-1 upset on the Cougars in the first round of the NAIA Region II playoffs.
As per GSAC policy, admission prices to next week’s GSAC championship will be $8 for adults, $6 for faculty, staff and seniors, $5 for students and children under 10 are admitted free.