AZUSA, Calif. -- Behind a spirited effort from its senior class in the regular-season finale, the NAIA’s No. 21-ranked Azusa Pacific turned what was mostly a lifeless first half into a spectacular display of offensive fireworks in a 4-0 win over Fresno Pacific Wednesday afternoon at the Cougars Soccer Complex.
Both teams alternated tentative possession-based buildups through the first 30 minutes until the Cougars suddenly broke through with a quick-striking attack through the middle that finished with senior midfielder Ashkon Banihashemi putting away what turned out to be the game-winner in the 31st minute.
“It feels good to score, especially at home, but getting a good result and feeling good about how we played is more satisfying than being the guy who scored,” Banihashemi said. “Today was awesome, because it was a day to remember all the great people and moments from the past 4 years.”
A trio of juniors set up the score, with defender Davis Delamarter hitting forward Vinicius Dantas at the top of the box. Dantas turned to the right, but the ball went the opposite direction with a clever flick off his right heel that led forward Nathan Nienhuis into the left side of the box. Nienhuis moved in for a quick shot from 17 yards out, a far-post strike that was knocked off target by Fresno Pacific goalkeeper Gildardo Villaruel. The redirected ball skipped across the face of the goal, where Banihashemi knocked it in from 5 yards out before the Sunbird defense could recover.
“I’m not normally the player for that situation,” Banihashemi said. “When it happens, it’s great, but I enjoy doing more of the dirty work. My goal today was just a result of great team play. There were two good runs that popped the ball right in front of me, and it could have been anyone to put it away at the end of it. We make it easy for ourselves when we move the ball and play our game.”
The game quickly returned to its original pace, with the remaining 15 minutes of the period passing without so much as another shot. At halftime, the teams had combined for just 3 fouls and 4 shots, with half of the shots coming on the Cougars’ scoring play.
“Both sides were content to let the other team have the ball a bit early on, so as not to get (their defense) pulled out too much,” Cougar head coach Dave Blomquist said. “Both took the tactic of letting the other team have a little of the ball, so there wasn’t very much opening up. That’s the importance of a first goal in a game like that, because it opened the game up a little for us.”
The second half, however, was a completely different story. Azusa Pacific took the second-half kickoff to send its attack straight ahead into the heart of the Fresno Pacific defense, playing directly over the Sunbirds’ back line to senior midfielder Brett Taylor, who took the first shot after halftime just 12 seconds into the second half.
That aggressive approach quickly netted 2 more quality chances deep in the Fresno Pacific box, and the Cougars capitalized on both. In the 48th minute, Dantas put away an easy finish from 6 yards out with assists from Delamarter and Taylor. Delamarter found Taylor at the top of the box, and with the goalkeeper charging to cut off his shooting angle, Taylor crossed it to Dantas at the far post for the finish that pushed the lead to 2-0.
Delamarter registered another assist moments later, setting up senior forward Alex Earl’s 51st-minute score that gave the Cougars a 3-0 cushion. Delamarter’s pass from the top of the box led Earl into the left side for a 12-yard strike to the near post.
Nienhuis rounded out the scoring in the 70th minute, heading Delamarter’s cross from the left side back across the goal to the far post for his fifth goal of the season. Delamarter tied the program’s single-game assists record, becoming the 12th player in Azusa Pacific history, and the second this season, to record 3 assists in a game. Taylor was the other, assisting all 3 goals in Azusa Pacific’s 3-0 win over Hope International, and he came inches away from making it a 5-0 lead with a 23-yard free kick off the crossbar in the 85th minute.
“I was pleased with our patience in the attack,” Blomquist said. “It’s not necessarily the number of shots but the quality of the chances that you get. We really looked for full chances, and our quality in the final third was better today than it has been.”
Fresno Pacific opened up its attack after halftime, as well, making the final shot total even at 11 shots a side. Sophomore goalkeeper Joe Geletko and a Cougar back line anchored by center backs Robert James and Lucas Young limited the Sunbirds’ scoring chances to lower-percentage strikes from outside the box. Geletko did his part, making a career-high 7 saves to preserve the shutout, his seventh clean sheet this year and the eighth team shutout for Azusa Pacific.
“You just have to adjust to the speed of play,” said Geletko, who made all 7 saves in the second half after seeing just 1 Sunbird shot before halftime.
“In the first half, both teams were trying to feel out what they wanted to do. Once they were down 1-0, they knew what they had to do, so I give credit to the defenders for holding them off and taking care of all the little things. Fresno Pacific only had one through ball, and our defense covered their crosses very well.”
The victory in the regular-season finale marked the return home from a 3-game road trip that derailed the Cougars’ GSAC title hopes with a loss to California Baptist, a draw with Westmont and a come-from-behind 2-1 win at San Diego Christian. It was also the final regular-season home game for Azusa Pacific’s senior class, which includes 6 players recognized in pre-game ceremonies.
“All of the seniors played well today – all 6 of them – which isn’t surprising because they have all been contributing numbers this year,” Blomquist said. “As the season winds down, playoff implications are there in every match, along with the recognition that there just aren’t that many games left. At the end of the conference season, guys really have the hunger to have great games.”
Azusa Pacific wraps up the regular season with a 14-3-1 overall record that includes a 7-2-1 GSAC mark. Conference co-leaders California Baptist and Vanguard both won their Wednesday contests, clinching a third-place finish for Azusa Pacific in the final GSAC standings.
“This program always does well, and that’s expected, but our guys want more,” Banihashemi said. “I think this game was a good stepping stone for where we want to be. Today we started to show how good we can be, and right now is a great time to peak. Tasting this type of win against a quality opponent and feeling good about how we played will help fuel our fire for the coming weeks.”
The Cougars are off on Saturday for their conference bye, allowing for a full week of rest before hosting a GSAC Postseason Tournament first-round game next Wednesday against the GSAC’s sixth-place finisher.
“I look at the bye as an advantage,” Blomquist said. “We haven’t had a week off since before conference started, and to have it now helps us rest up some injuries and get our legs back. I felt like all aspects of our game were good today, and you hope to be playing at your best this time of year. Now we just want to keep this momentum going.”
Full GSAC Tournament information will be announced by the conference office following the conclusion of Saturday’s regular-season action.