AZUSA, Calif. -- Junior forward Nathan Nienhuis scored his second straight game-winning goal off the bench, and the Azusa Pacific defense took care of the rest in a 1-0 win over Biola Saturday at the Cougar Soccer Complex.
Nienhuis quickly announced his entrance into the game, ending the scoreless tie just past the 32-minute mark, a mere 2-and-a-half minutes after entering the contest. Freshman Jeremy Bishop, a substitute several minutes prior to Nienhuis in the midfield, played a ball over the last line of Biola defenders, and Nienhuis got between a pair of Eagles to take the ball into the box. Biola goalkeeper Aaron Fenlason got a hand on Nienhuis’ first-time strike, but not enough to alter it from bouncing into the net.
“It speaks to the depth of the team that we have a number of guys that don’t start that are good enough to do so,” Cougar head coach Dave Blomquist said. “That really helps us when we can bring on those types of players who add a lot to our team and don’t let the level drop when they’re out there.”
The 1-0 score was identical to the 1-0 defeats the Cougars suffered to Biola in both of the teams’ 2009 meetings, including the 2009 Golden State Athletic Conference postseason tournament semifinal matchup in Azusa. Azusa Pacific did not receive an at-large berth to the NAIA national tournament, so the stinging loss to Biola ultimately ended the Cougars’ 2009 campaign.
“I’m sure (last year) was in the mind of all the returners, but you don’t want to derive too much motivation from what’s happened in the past,” Cougar head coach Dave Blomquist said. “It was a big win because Biola ended our season last year, and we lost 2 games by the same score to them. For competitive athletes, if a team beats you one year, you want to get them the next year. We don’t use it as a motivating factor, but perhaps it adds to the satisfaction of the victory.”
Saturday’s result sinks Biola into the middle of the GSAC table at the halfway point of the conference schedule, while Azusa Pacific, ranked No. 12 in the NAIA, remains just a game out of the GSAC lead when it takes on defending NAIA runner-up The Master’s and conference-leading California Baptist in the next week.
“The middle of the GSAC schedule is the toughest part of the year,” Blomquist said. “You’ve geared up for your non-conference, and you’ve geared up for the start of GSAC, but once you’re a few games into the league it’s difficult to maintain your focus and level of play. It’s a challenge, but it’s one of the advantages to the conference being so tough from top to bottom. The guys know that every game is an important one, and that helps them stay focused knowing there’s no game on the schedule where they can afford to relax.”
The Cougars, who have scored first and led at halftime in 11 of 13 games this year, held scoreless a Biola attack that had scored 11 goals through its first 3 Golden State Athletic Conference games entering Saturday’s contest. Sophomore goalkeeper Joe Geletko finished with 5 saves, 4 of them while protecting the 1-goal lead, for his sixth shutout of the year and his fourth cleansheet in the past 7 games.
Geletko’s first save was a stop of a 20-yard right-footed strike in the 23rd minute from Biola forward Phillip Friehe, a low line drive from the right that was screaming towards the left post. Geletko made a diving stop to his right, covering the ball to control it as he rolled for a spectacular save.
In the second half, Biola took 10 total shots and put 3 of them on goal, but Geletko also shut down what may have been the Eagles’ best scoring opportunity in the 72nd minute. With Biola advancing into the box along the right side, Friehe touched the ball past a Cougar defender into the right corner of the box for a cross. Geletko correctly read the touch, charging out from goal to smother the chance before Friehe could put a cross in front of the net.
“Our defending and our back four is improving with every game,” Blomquist said. “They’re working really well together, and they did a great job having patience when they had the ball in the back to help manage the game and not force the tempo when we had the lead. Joe had another outstanding game with a diving save in the first half that I felt was really first-class, and then in the second half, the Biola player too k a bit of a long touch, and Joe got right out and covered it.”
Not content to sit back and purely defend in a tight game, Azusa Pacific featured a patient, possession-based attack that generated several other quality scoring chances throughout the game. The Cougars finished with a 16-14 edge in total shots, and near-misses in each half were produced from some nifty passing in and around the box.
“I thought the midfield was going to be a big key in the game, and it was,” Blomquist said. “The midfield has a big influence in the game, and I thought all our midfielders played a good game. Jeremy got the assist on our goal from play in the midfield, and the whole group helped us all over the field. They tracked back in defending, they kept the ball when we needed to, and at times they joined the attack when we needed them.”
In the 10th minute, senior midfielder Ashkon Banihashemi sent a cross from the right touch line to freshman midfielder Oktay Bulut, who stood about 8 yards in front of the goal just inside the right post. With Fenlason and a Biola defender cutting off his angle to the near post, Bulut coolly flicked a shot with the back of his right foot towards the far post, missing the goal by about a yard to the left.
Midway through the second half, Banihashemi started another chance when he led senior midfielder Brett Taylor into space along the left wing. Taylor found sophomore midfielder Trenton Titus in the left side of the box, and Titus touched it past the scrambling Biola defense to senior forward Alex Earl at the top of the box. Earl one-timed a laser from 20 yards away towards the top of the goal, where it just cleared the top of the bar.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 11-2 overall with a 4-1 GSAC mark, while Biola drops to 4-6-1 overall and 2-2 in GSAC play. The Cougars host The Master’s on Wednesday, Oct. 14, at 3 p.m., then visit No. 7-ranked California Baptist on Saturday, Oct. 17.