AZUSA, Calif. -- Junior forward Alex Earl scored 2 second-half goals that put the Azusa Pacific offense back on track in a 3-0 victory over California Baptist Saturday afternoon at the Cougar Soccer Complex.
The NAIA’s No. 4-ranked Cougars, who averaged over 3.5 goals through the season’s first 11 games, scored just once and lost back-to-back road games to Biola and The Master’s before Saturday’s win. Earl, injured Sept. 3 in a 3-0 road win at Redlands, returned to the field for his first game action Saturday, and both of his shots on goal blistered the back of the net for the finishing touches of Azusa Pacific’s return to the win column.
“I was thrilled to have (Alex) back ready to play,” Cougar head coach Dave Blomquist said. “He had been playing really well in those first 3 games, and he worked very hard to get himself back. He really picked up where he left off before the injury, which is a very difficult thing to do.”
Sophomore forward Nathan Nienhuis opened the scoring midway through the opening half after California Baptist goalkeeper Dan Kelly stopped the Cougars’ first 5 shots on goal. His header from 9 yards out redirected the end of a beautiful left-footed cross from sophomore defender Davis Delamarter inside the far post in the 27th minute. Just 2 minutes earlier, Kelly had stopped another header from Nienhuis, who was in the starting lineup for the first time this season.
Earl and sophomore forward Cito Soriano teamed up for Azusa Pacific’s second goal less than 2 minutes after entering the game as second-half substitutes. Soriano got the ball on a breakaway up the left side, drawing the last Lancers defender before sliding a pass across the top of the box. Earl one-timed it from 18 yards out to the far post to give the Cougars a 2-0 cushion in the 59th minute.
A Soriano header rebounded off the crossbar at the 70-minute mark, nearly pushing the lead to 3-0.
In the 75th minute, junior midfielder Ashkon Banihashemi curled a cross towards the far post, where Earl volleyed it in from 4 yards out to get Azusa Pacific a 3-goal margin.
“We struggled to find the back of the net the past 2 games,” Blomquist said. “To create as many opportunities as we did today and put 3 of them away is really a positive thing as we look forward to the last 3 games of the GSAC. Hopefully we have some of our scoring touch back.”
Senior goalkeeper Tyler Stromberg anchored a Cougar defense that faced 10 shots on the day, turning in a solid 6-save afternoon for his sixth shutout of the season.
“Even in those 2 losses, we played fairly well from box to box but just haven’t been able to put it together in front of the goal,” Blomquist said. “We worked hard on it in training this week, and the guys found it again today.”
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 12-2 overall, 5-2 in GSAC play, pulling to within a game of GSAC leader The Master’s, which suffered a 2-0 setback at Vanguard today. California Baptist drops to 2-6-4 overall, 1-5-1 GSAC. The Cougars are home for a pair of conference matchups next week, hosting Westmont on Tuesday (Oct. 20) and San Diego Christian on Saturday (Oct. 24).