AZUSA, Calif. -- Junior midfielder Eric Winblad was named the 2008 Brine-NAIA National Player of the Year, becoming Azusa Pacific’s first-ever national player of the year and just the second from the Golden State Athletic Conference. Winblad is 1 of 3 Cougars to earn Brine-NAIA All-American recognition and was also the GSAC Player of the Year.
“It speaks so highly of him,” Cougar head coach Phil Wolf said. “Unfortunately for Eric, he’s been one of those role players for us the last couple of years because we haven’t needed him to do more. This year, we needed him to do a lot more, and he moved into the center midfield and was great. He can play anywhere, and I’m just thankful that the coaches recognized it, because he is a special player and a special talent at this level.”
Winblad sparked a remarkable turnaround for Azusa Pacific, which started the season 1-2-2 through its first 5 games. Winblad, a key figure in the Cougars’ central defense, moved up to stabilize the central midfield following a 1-0 road defeat to Cal State San Marcos Sept. 10.
With Winblad in the midfield, Azusa Pacific bounced back with back-to-back wins in its final 2 non-conference games, handing Baker (Kan.) a 3-0 defeat and posting a 6-1 win over Embry-Riddle (Ariz.). The Cougars then dismantled the GSAC, opening the conference slate with 6 straight shutouts en route to an 8-1-1 conference record that clinched the second straight GSAC title for Azusa Pacific. The Cougars ascended to a No. 5 national ranking in the final NAIA Coaches Poll and advanced to the GSAC Postseason Tournament Championship game, but Westmont’s 2-0 win in the title game clinched the conference’s automatic bid into the NAIA Tournament.
“Last year, we knew we were the best team in the country,” Winblad said. “Coming into this year, we knew it was going to be a struggle. It’s been a great accomplishment because we were 1-2-2 to start the year and then turning into conference champions shows we’ve come a long way. Every game has been a challenge. There hasn’t been one easy game for us, and those are the kind of seasons you look forward to.”
Winblad shared the scoring lead with 6 goals for a team built around a veteran defense that surrendered just 12 goals all season, only 1 more than the program-record 11 it allowed in 2007 when Azusa Pacific won the NAIA championship. He scored 5 goals in the Cougars’ 10 GSAC contests, and all 4 of his assists came during conference play. Winblad’s sixth goal of the year snapped a scoreless tie with less than 15 minutes remaining in regulation in the GSAC Tournament semifinals, lifting Azusa Pacific over The Master’s into the conference tournament championship.
“It’s just a great honor and it wasn’t expected at all, but I think it really honors the guys that helped me play in the midfield, where I’d never played before,” Winblad said. “People like Andrew Kirby and Ashkon Banihashemi, they helped me and taught me how to play in the midfield. I can’t take the credit for it, especially because there are so many guys on the team that made me better and taught me how to play a position I’d never played before.”
Wolf was named GSAC Coach of the Year for the second straight season, receiving the award for the third time in 8 seasons at the helm of the Azusa Pacific soccer program. Wolf guided the Cougars to their second consecutive GSAC regular-season title, the program’s fourth in the past 8 seasons.
“Awards follow winning – that’s just the reality of it,” said Wolf, who was out of the country the final week of the regular season as his team clinched the regular-season title while he completed the adoption of a son from Russia. “If you win the conference, those kinds of things happen, but to be honest, I think there’s a couple guys who probably did a better job than me this year. If I am deserving, I certainly owe so much to Dave (Blomquist), Jordan (Jones) and Jon (Taylor) because I wasn’t even here the last week and they won the biggest game of the year. I’d love to reflect all of that onto my assistants and also just say that there are a lot of great coaches in the conference that did a great job.”
Winblad, who earned Brine-NAIA All-American first team recognition, was joined on the All-American first team by senior defender Jared Karkas, the first time in program history 2 Cougars have appeared on the NAIA All-American first team. Karkas scored 4 goals and assisted 3 more, registering 3 goals and 2 assists in the 4-game stretch that started Azusa Pacific’s 12-2-1 stretch run.
“Jared’s been probably one of our top 3 players for about 4 years now,” Wolf said. “He’s the best left back in the country, and unfortunately left backs don’t always get the recognition. He’s a special player, and he’s a player for the next level. He’s had a great year, but even more so, he’s had a great career.”
Senior goalkeeper James Crawford earned Brine-NAIA All-American third team recognition after surrendering a program record-low 10 goals in 16 games. Crawford posted a GSAC-best 8 shutouts on the season, giving him a program-record 28 career shutouts. He also led the GSAC in goals against average (0.60) and save percentage (.828), and finishes his 4-year Cougar career with a program-record 0.68 goals against average.
“Jimmy’s just solid,”Wolf said. “He doesn’t make mistakes and just does what he’s supposed to do. I think that’s more of a recognition of his 4 years, of playing 3 years in the national championship and now conceding just 10 goals, I think that’s a culmination of all the work he’s done, and I think he’s very deserving.”
Winblad, Karkas and Crawford were all named to the All-GSAC team along with senior defender Beau Hayden and junior midfielder Dana Yoshizu. Hayden, a 4-year starter along the Azusa Pacific back line, had 1 goal and 1 assist but helped anchor a Cougar defense that gave up just 12 goals all year. Yoshizu scored 2 goals and had 1 assist and started 16 straight games to finish the season.
“Beau deserves it, because he’s probably the best right back in our league right now and has been a starter for 4 years,” Wolf said. “The games he’s seen and what he’s done and the games he’s played in has been amazing, so I think that’s also kind of a career award. I don’t think his year this year is much different than any other year, it’s just that he’s one of the best players in the league.”
Winblad and Karkas were repeat selections from the 2007 All-GSAC team, while the all-conference nod was the first for Crawford, Hayden and Yoshizu.
“I think Dana’s really been a bright spot for us this year,” Wolf said. “He’s had some really strong performances, and he’s really coming into his own and learning what it means to be successful at this level. I’m really happy for him, because he could be the kind of guy that gets overlooked, but they recognized him. That’s great for him, and I’m really proud of him.”
Hayden was also a GSAC Scholar Athlete and earned Daktronics-NAIA Scholar-Athlete recognition. The Daktronics-NAIA Scholar Athlete recipients must be a junior or above in academic standing and have a minimum GPA of 3.50.
Click below for full postseason honors lists.