AZUSA, Calif. -- Biola handed Azusa Pacific its first loss of the 2009 season on Oct. 10, and less than a month later, the Eagles may have ended the Cougars’ 2009 campaign with a 1-0 victory in the semifinals of the GSAC Postseason Tournament Saturday afternoon at the Cougar Soccer Complex. With just 33 seconds remaining in regulation and Azusa Pacific playing a man down due to an 81st-minute red card, Zach Bautista tapped Kennedy Chongo’s cross off the far post just inches across the goal line for the game-winner, breaking the scoreless tie and preventing overtime.
“When you’re a man down, if the other team moves the ball well, they can find players with some space,” Cougar head coach Dave Blomquist said. “Biola does move the ball well, and they found Kennedy (Chongo) out wide, and he’s a very good player who gave us some problems.”
With the loss, Azusa Pacific drops to 16-3 overall and awaits the conclusion of conference tournaments throughout the NAIA, as well as next week’s final NAIA Top 25 poll, to determine if it will earn at-large bid to the 2009 NAIA Men’s Soccer National Championship. The highest-ranked teams in next week’s poll which did not win their conference’s automatic bid will be awarded the national tournament’s at-large bids. The NAIA national office will announce the full tournament field on Sunday, November 16, along with the 15 opening-round pairings that will be played on Saturday, November 21, at NAIA campuses nationwide.
Senior goalkeeper Tyler Stromberg finished with 6 saves in a standout performance, turning away consecutive point-blank opportunities in the 87th minute with the Cougars playing a man down due to an 81st-minute red card that cost Azusa Pacific one of its center backs, senior Gareth Tomlinson. Tomlinson knocked Biola goalkeeper Aaron Fenlason to the ground after Fenlason controlled a dangerous free kick amid heavy traffic in the box. The referee, whose back was turned at that point, consulted with the linesman and then sent Tomlinson off for the infraction. Fenlason remained in the game.
With the manpower advantage, Kennedy Chongo was able to get free on a breakaway, and he gave the ball up to Marco Ruvalcaba in the box. Ruvalcaba’s attempt was deflected away by Stromberg but landed right at the feet of Bautista at the top of the box. Stromberg scrambled back to his feet and tipped away Bautista’s 18-yard strike, and the Cougar defense was able to clear the ball from danger. Stromberg also recorded a fingertip save on a 75th-minute breakaway for Chongo, whose low drive to the far post was tipped away for 1 of Stomberg’s 4 second-half saves.
“Tyler is a player who has worked tremendously hard all 4 years he’s been here,” Blomquist said. “He’s done some great things in training for 3 years, as well as some really good things as the starter this year. As a senior, this game was very important to him, so I’m not surprised at all that he stepped up and made some really big saves.”
Tomlinson’s late-game offense was hardly the first physical contact in Biola’s box, but it was the first acknowledged by the referee’s whistle. Azusa Pacific generated 14 total shots, 1 shy of Biola’s 15, but the Eagles took full liberty with the referee’s interpretation of incidental contact in the box to turn away several dangerous chances. Indeed, 17 fouls were called against Biola, yet all 17 occurred outside the area in which an infraction would cost the Eagles a penalty kick. Fenlason recorded his only save of the game just 10 minutes into the first half when he barely got a glove on senior defender Eric Winblad’s 28-yard rocket on a free kick.
Azusa Pacific missed several chances and failed to take advantage of Stromberg’s nearly-flawless defensive effort. Sophomore forward Vinicius Dantas hit the right post in the 59th minute, and just past the 75-minute mark, sophomore forward Cito Soriano hit the crossbar. In all, the Cougars generated 14 shots but put just 1 on goal.
“It’s more frustrating for the guys, that they feel an injustice was done to them today,” Blomquist said. “That can lead to some frustration when you lose, but from my standpoint, I’m really proud of the guys for playing so well today. We put a lot of things together and looked like a team that has a lot of quality and is playing really well together. I was really proud of the way they played, and this is an outstanding team that deserves to keep playing.”
Biola improves to 13-3-2 overall and will visit GSAC regular-season champion The Master’s College in next Saturday’s GSAC Postseason Tournament championship game.