AZUSA, Calif. -- Azusa Pacific knew it needed a win at home over The Master’s in order to set up a key battle for the Golden State Athletic Conference lead Saturday at California Baptist. What it didn’t count on was moving into a first-place tie prior to Saturday by posting a 2-1 win Wednesday afternoon over defending conference champion The Master’s College.
Thanks to Point Loma Nazarene’s shocking 2-0 upset over the NAIA’s No. 5-ranked California Baptist Wednesday in Riverside, the No. 15-ranked Cougars now share the conference lead and take a 12-2 overall and 5-1 GSAC mark into Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. clash with the Lancers.
“Our players are not satisfied with where we’re at,” Cougar head coach Dave Blomquist said. “We still have work to do within the GSAC, and we still have aspirations beyond that. The guys recognize that in order for us to accomplish all we want to, we need to be better than we are right now, and they have the hunger and desire to be a better team.”
Despite surrendering lengthy stretches of Mustang possession early in the first half, a trio of Azusa Pacific reserves quickly shifted the tide with a 32nd-minute counterattack up the right side of the field. Freshman midfielder Jeremy Bishop led unmarked senior defender Otis Holt up the right sideline, and Holt’s cross to the back post connected with sophomore midfielder Michael Sahagian.
“I’ve talked before about how important our bench is and how many quality players we have, and Otis serving it to Michael speaks again to that,” Blomquist said.
Sahagian had been in the game for less than 2 minutes, Holt just over 2 minutes, and Bishop had come on just 7 minutes prior to the game’s first goal.
Just prior to the flurry of substitutions, Joel Peluffo struck a high-quality shot on goal with a buckling 26-yard strike in the 24th minute. Sophomore goalkeeper Joe Geletko made a leaping fingertip save, grazing just enough of the ball to tip Peluffo’s shot off the top edge of the crossbar and over the goal.
The Master’s goalkeeper Andrew Bussell prevented a second Cougar score in the 39th minute by diving left and hanging onto a 26-yard free kick off the right foot of junior forward Vinicius Dantas. The free kick resulted from a foul committed on speedy junior forward Nathan Nienhuis, who was pulled down outside the left corner of the box on another Azusa Pacific counter.
“Throughout this year we’ve been improving in all aspects of the game,” Blomquist said. “Our team defending and our ability in the attack are both products of a more complete game by the team. We’re making sure we start games well defensively so we don’t concede a goal early, and we were fortunate to take some chances in the first half and get that lead.”
Sahagian’s goal, his second of the season, held up for a 1-0 halftime lead, but The Master’s drew even just 5 minutes into the second half with Jacob Marchesani’s header finish of a Josh Hoeft cross from the right in the 50th minute.
Just past the 54-minute mark, sophomore midfielder Trenton Titus nearly tucked inside the far post a left-footed shot from the right side, with the strike ricocheting off a defender before hitting the top left corner of the woodwork.
The ensuing corner kick allowed Azusa Pacific to bring numbers forward, and the extended attack produced the game-winner from freshman midfielder Oktay Bulut. Senior midfielder Brett Taylor’s cross from the right side connected with Bulut for a header at the far post, making Bulut the seventh different Cougar to score a game-winning goal this season.
“Both of the goals today came from good crosses and good finishes,” Blomquist said. “We had quality serves, great arrivals in the box, and quality finishes. I was really pleased with both goals and with the quality that we showed in them.”
Peluffo hit the crossbar again with a 57th-minute header, but that was the best remaining chance the Mustangs would produce. The Azusa Pacific defense, bolstered by its towering center backs Lucas Young (6-foot-4) and Robert James (6-foot-3), dominated the air to keep The Master’s away from the box, and Geletko handled the Mustangs’ final 2 shots on goal to preserve the 1-goal margin through the final whistle.
A year ago, Azusa Pacific suffered back-to-back losses at Biola and The Master’s to enter the final 4-game stretch a full 2 games out of the GSAC lead. With Wednesday’s win, the Cougars returned the favor by dropping the Mustangs (6-4-2 overall) to 3-3 in the GSAC, behind 4 teams at the top of the conference table with 1 conference loss apiece.
“You always want to get the 3 points at home,” Blomquist said. “Getting points on the road in this league is tough, so you really want to take care of the ones on your home field where you’re more comfortable and feel like you can play your style. These last few wins have been tight, they’ve been tough, and we’ve had to grind them out a bit, but getting them under our belt was very important as we now hit the road.”
Azusa Pacific’s final 4 GSAC games include 2 games against the other 3 1-loss teams – Saturday’s visit to California Baptist (5-1 GSAC) and the Cougars’ regular-season finale at home against Fresno Pacific (4-1 GSAC).