COSTA MESA, Calif. -- The NAIA’s No. 2-ranked Azusa Pacific kicked off its Golden State Athletic Conference title defense with a 2-0 road win over Vanguard, the very team that took it down to the wire for the conference crown in last season’s regular-season finale.
A year ago, Azusa Pacific scored the “golden goal” game-winner with 69 seconds to play in the final overtime period, clinching the GSAC regular-season championship for the Cougars. The 2009 conference schedule pitted the same 2 teams in this year’s opener, and Azusa Pacific tallied early scores in both halves to register the 2-0 victory.
“We knew the start of GSAC would be difficult, just as the end of it was last year,” Cougar head coach Dave Blomquist said. “Opening up against the team we ended with last year, in such an intense game with a lot of meaning -- that’s just the way the conference is. Game in and game out, you’re going to have a test of one sort or another.”
Junior midfielder Brett Taylor put the left-footed finish on just the third shot of the game, finding the back of the net for a 1-0 Azusa Pacific lead in the 15th minute. Senior defender Alejandro Ramos tossed a throw-in from the right side to sophomore forward Cito Soriano, who played it to Taylor at the top of the box. The 6-foot midfielder squared the ball up for a one-time volley to the far post for an opening score that provided an advantage that held up through halftime.
In the 23rd minute, senior goalkeeper Tyler Stromberg did his part to preserve the shutout, tipping a 22-yard Vanguard free kick struck by Tomislav Colic just over the crossbar. The spectacular save was 1 of Stromberg’s 8 saves, as he posted his third consecutive shutout and extended the Cougars’ streak of consecutive scoreless minutes to 311.
The victory was also Azusa Pacific’s first game this season in which both Cougar forwards, Soriano and sophomore Vini Dantas, did not score.
“Each GSAC game offers a different type of test, and each one will test your team in some capacity,” Blomquist said. “Tonight’s game tested our ability to battle for 90 minutes, to play a Vanguard team that really wasn’t going to stop playing. They’re a tough team that has quality, physical players. We knew it would be a test to start us off, and every GSAC team on the road is a tough one.”
Early in the second half, senior midfielder Reid Baker took a touch around a defender outside the box, then chipped a shot over Vanguard goalkeeper Trevor Herrera for a 53rd-minute insurance goal. Stromberg registered 4 second-half saves, including a stop against Vanguard sophomore Adam Holstein, who was a member of Azusa Pacific’s 2007 NAIA championship squad.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 8-0 on the season and opens GSAC play at 1-0, while Vanguard drops to 3-4-1 overall and 0-1 in conference play. The Cougars are back in action on Wednesday, Sept. 30, when they host Hope International in a 3 p.m. contest.