AZUSA, Calif. -- The NAIA’s No. 9-ranked Azusa Pacific kicked off its postseason just the way it wrapped up the regular season, scoring a pair of goals to defeat Fresno Pacific, 2-1, in the first round of the Golden State Athletic Conference postseason tournament. Senior midfielder Dana Yoshizu provided the game-winner with just over 10 minutes to play, advancing the tournament’s second-seeded Cougars into Saturday’s semifinals with a 2-1 win.
Yoshizu took the ball in the left side of the box through passes from sophomore forwards Vinicius Dantas and Cito Soriano, and he found the opening low to the left from 9 yards out for the 80th-minute game-winner.
“Usually I’ll pass if I have that option, but my only option was to shoot,” Yoshizu said of his first career game-winner. “Thank God it went in. This postseason has a lot more meaning to me personally. It’s a lot heavier to know that this could potentially be my last game.”
Azusa Pacific, which improves to 16-2 overall with the win, will host third-seeded Biola in a semifinal matchup on Saturday (Nov. 7) at 2 p.m. Biola advanced over sixth-seeded Vanguard on penalty kicks Wednesday night, winning the shootout, 4-2, after playing to a 1-1 draw in 2 overtimes. In the teams' Oct. 10 regular-season meeting, Biola handed Azusa Pacific the first of back-to-back losses, the Cougars' only 2 setbacks of the season.
Both teams scored goals in the first 11 minutes of an entertaining first half, with Dantas drawing first blood on the Cougars’ first shot of the game less than 3 minutes in from the opening kickoff. From the top of the box, freshman midfielder Trenton Titus played to the right to Dantas, who found the back of the net at the near post from 15 yards out for a 1-0 lead.
Fresno Pacific answered with an 11th-minute flurry, started by back-to-back Guilherme Machado shots. His first was blocked by a Cougar defender, but he regained possession in the box and fired another shot at senior goalkeeper Tyler Stromberg, who knocked the ball away for the save. However, the rebound fell to the feet of Rodrigo Vianna, who buried a 5-yard strike to the far post to tie the game at 1-1.
“We definitely have to prepare better mentally,” Yoshizu said. “It felt like we came into this game a little bit soft, but I think we’ll pick it up over time. As Coach told us at the end of the game, these games are going to be a lot harder than regular season games.”
That 3-shot flurry represented half of Fresno Pacific’s 6-shot total in the game, as the Cougar defense limited the Sunbirds to just 2 more shots over the final 79 minutes, keeping a Sunbird offense that averaged 3 goals per game and scored at least 2 in every game against the other 9 GSAC teams in check for the second time in 8 days.
“We tend to have a little more of a methodical pace to the way we start games, but we’re explosive enough in our attack that we’re good when the pace gets going,” Cougar head coach Dave Blomquist said. “I was fine with (the pace), because we were still defending well. When we’re defending well, the pace going forward is actually to our benefit. In these last 2 games, we’ve been able to make the timely plays to keep them off the board.”
In the 70 minutes prior to Yoshizu’s game-winner, Azusa Pacific generated a myriad of quality scoring chances. In the 33rd minute, Soriano centered the ball to junior forward Alex Earl for a one-on-one opportunity against Fresno Pacific goalkeeper Timothy Nightingale, but Earl’s shot sailed over the goal.
Barely 30 seconds into the second half, Dantas hauled in a cross from senior defender Eric Winblad to the right of the goal at the top of the box and hammered a left-footed strike towards the far post. Nightingale made the diving stop for 1 of his 6 saves, but the Cougars came right back down just 3 minutes later for an open Soriano header from 6 yards out just missed wide left in the 49th minute.
In the 70th minute, sophomore forward Nathan Nienhuis was pulled down in the box for an Azusa Pacific penalty kick, but Earl’s low strike missed wide to the right to keep the game tied at 1-1 until Yoshizu’s game-winner 10 minutes later. Two minutes later, it was sophomore defender Davis Delamarter whose 10-yard strike from the left hit the near post before it was cleared from danger.
Fresno Pacific’s only shot of the second half came in the 48th minute, and senior goalkeeper Tyler Stromberg hauled in Kasshif Siddiqi’s well-struck 88th-minute cross from the right end line to eliminate the Sunbirds’ best second-half scoring chance. Stromberg finished with 2 saves, while the Cougars owned a 21-6 margin in total shots and a 7-0 advantage in corner kicks. Fresno Pacific was whistled for 20 fouls to Azusa Pacific’s 8.
“You can’t turn it on and off from game to game, both in your attack and in your defending,” Blomquist said. “Defense is about organization, your commitment to work, and your communication, and I thought we’ve done a good job of it all year.”
Azusa Pacific is now 16-2 overall, while Fresno Pacific drops to 8-7-2 on the season. The Sunbirds will receive the host bid and an opening-round bye into the 16-team final site of the NAIA Men’s Soccer National Championship, held Nov. 30 through Dec. 5 at Fresno Pacific’s Ramirez Field.