AZUSA, Calif. -- Azusa Pacific knows what it’s like to be a team of destiny, playing the part during last year’s NAIA title run. Maybe that’s what softened the disappointment of Monday’s season-ending 2-0 loss to Westmont that kept the NAIA’s No. 5-ranked Cougars from advancing to the program’s fifth consecutive NAIA Tournament.
Instead, a Westmont team whose coach and several players are still reeling from the devastation of the Tea fire that swept through Montecito last week pulled off its third straight upset of a top-3 conference finisher on the road to clinch the GSAC’s automatic bid to the 50th Annual NAIA Men’s Soccer National Championship.
“They definitely had the momentum the whole game,” said Azusa Pacific midfielder Eric Winblad, the 2008 GSAC Player of the Year. “It was hard having the game be rescheduled. The whole weekend has just been a mess, mentally. We were feeling like the bad guys coming in and playing against them. They definitely had the momentum in the game with all their support with the fans, and it was just hard to overcome that.”
The fire damaged several campus buildings, destroying 14 faculty homes, including the home of Warriors head coach and athletic director Dave Wolf, and the GSAC men’s soccer championship game, originally scheduled for Saturday, was postponed until Monday.
“I told the guys, you could play in the national final this year, but you will never play in a game like today,” Wolf said, “and it’s because of God first and foremost, who knits this kind of thing together. I think all the way around, it was an incredible experience, and I’d like to believe I’d be saying that even if the result didn’t go our way today. Even if Azusa Pacific would have won the game, I just felt like everything that was happening around this day was a testimony to what happens when people of faith get ignited. It was an awesome experience.”
Westmont used a scoreless first half as a confidence booster, and Harrison Hill put away the game-winner less than 5 minutes into the second half, one-timing a cross from senior midfielder Jonathon Schoff past senior All-GSAC goalkeeper James Crawford. Schoff, whose off-campus residence was also destroyed by the wildfire, broke free along the right side and delivered the cross to Hill about 12 yards out at the near post.
“If they weren’t playing against us, I’d be rooting for them and hoping they get to the national tournament, but obviously I’m a competitor and you want to win every game you play,” said Azusa Pacific head coach Phil Wolf, the younger brother of Westmont’s head coach of 18 years. “For us, it’s unfortunate that we lose it, but I’m happy for him now that I can take my Azusa Pacific coaching hat off. I’m really happy for my brother and happy for Westmont. They’ve gone through a lot, and I’m just really pleased for them.”
Schoff assisted the Warriors’ second goal, as well, flicking a long throw-in from freshman defender Zach George back to junior midfielder Hugo Pizano at the top of the box, who drilled another shot past Crawford from 19 yards out to give Westmont a 2-0 lead.
Azusa Pacific out-shot Westmont by an 11-5 margin in the second half, but Warriors goalkeeper Justin Etherton made 6 saves and was helped by the defense around him for another save off the goal line, to hold the Cougars scoreless. Not much seemed to work for Azusa Pacific’s attack against the spirited defensive effort of Westmont.
“I told our guys before the game that we were going to have to be psychologically very strong to win this game, because Westmont had so much going for them,” Phil Wolf said. “We didn’t really match their effort and the momentum they had built, and we pretty much got outplayed in almost every category.”
In the 64th minute, freshman forward Vini Dantas found All-GSAC senior defender Jared Karkas on a breakaway up the left side, but Karkas’ attempt at the equalizer skimmed the grass straight into the waiting arms of Etherton. After Pizano’s go-ahead score, Dantas got another chance, sending another low drive to the far post from 20 yards out, but Etherton made the diving save to his left to preserve Westmont’s 2-0 lead.
Despite a No. 5 national ranking in this week’s final NAIA poll and a national tournament field that expanded from 20 to 31 teams this season, Azusa Pacific was unable to secure one of the at-large berths to the NAIA tournament to defend its national title, and the Cougars’ season comes to an end prior to the NAIA Tournament for the first time since 2003.
“There’s a pretty special link between Azusa Pacific and Westmont, and we’re never going to sell that out for a game or a title or for anything else,” Phil Wolf said. “Those things are much more important. For our institutions, we’re always going to be there for each other. Titles burn up and national championship rings melt down, but at the end of the day, it’s about relationships, it’s about family, it’s about brotherhood and building a community. That’s what we’ve been trying to do all these years, and I try to do that within my team.”
Westmont will host unranked Holy Names University, the California Pacific Athletic Conference champion, in the opening round of the national tournament this Saturday, Nov. 22.