RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- Senior forward Alex Earl scored an unassisted goal in the opening minute of the second half, and it held up for a 1-0 GSAC Postseason Tournament semifinal win over the NAIA’s No. 11-ranked California Baptist behind a strong defensive effort from an Azusa Pacific defense that featured freshman Chip Cox in his first collegiate start.
The shutout was the 10th of the year for No. 16-ranked Azusa Pacific, with Cox securing the shutout in his first career start. In addition to advancing to next week’s GSAC Postseason Tournament championship, the Cougars avenged an Oct. 16 1-0 defeat to California Baptist, which finished second in the GSAC regular season.
“Both games were tight games that could have gone either way,” Cougar head coach Dave Blomquist said. “We were sharper today than the last time, and we had the full mental endurance for 90 minutes. That was an area we improved on from the last time we were in Riverside, as well as our commitment to get back defensively and make a lot of well-timed challenges in and around the box. I felt like our team commitment to defend was outstanding today.”
Azusa Pacific is the No. 3 seed in the conference tournament, and the Cougars will get a chance to avenge their other GSAC loss next Saturday, when they visit the conference regular-season champion, top-seeded Vanguard.
After taking the opening kickoff, the Cougars explored the right edge of the Lancer defense before working it back to the center. That’s where senior midfielder Ashkon Banihashemi lofted a ball towards the top of the box, and Earl got behind the defense to chip it over goalkeeper Joey Pacheco. Earl raced around Pacheco and held off another defender to slip the ball into the empty net just 33 seconds into the second half for the game’s only score.
“Sometimes it takes a little bit of time to get the flow going at the beginning of each half, but that goal came right away,” Blomquist said. “I think it took both teams by surprise that we got a really good chance right away. It was really an intelligent run by Alex, and a great ball by Ashkon that led to it. Those two players being really sharp in the moment created the chance.”
From there, Azusa Pacific used a hard-working defense in front of Cox, who started Saturday’s contest in goal in place of sophomore Joe Geletko, who was serving his 1-game red card suspension from Wednesday’s 4-0 quarterfinal win over Hope International.
That defense took a big hit midway through the second half, when junior defender Lucas Young got tangled up with the Lancers’ Tiburcio Casillas just outside the Cougar box. For their roles in the scuffle that ensued, Young was issued a straight red card and Casillas received a yellow card, leaving Azusa Pacific to play the final 18 minutes a man down and without a key figure in the defense. The ejection was the second straight game a Cougar player was sent off, and Young will now miss next week’s GSAC championship game.
“It was an unfortunate situation to go down a man again, but the guys really rallied together to hold on to the lead,” Blomquist said. “I want my players to keep their composure and their cool, but it’s a very emotional game being a conference semifinal and a very tight game. There were some strong tackles and late fouls in the game, but nothing that I felt was out of the ordinary for a GSAC soccer match.”
California Baptist maximized its manpower advantage the rest of the way, firing off 7 of its 12 shots in the game in the final 13 minutes of play. Two of the Lancers’ shots in the final flurry were blocked by defenders, and perhaps the best chance, a blistering Tim Wardell strike with just under a minute left from the top of the box, sailed about a foot over the crossbar to preserve the 1-0 margin.
Cox was credited with saving California Baptist’s only shot on goal, but he played an active role in numerous situations that prevented other scoring chances for the Lancers.
“Chip did a great job, and when he needed to come out and make a play, he was in command of what he was doing,” Blomquist said. “He was decisive and aggressive, and I had all the confidence in him entering the game because of the type of keeper he is. He had to come out for some in the air, and he had to punch a few away; he definitely had more action than just the 1 save.”
Azusa Pacific finished with a 14-12 edge in total shots, and the Cougars put 6 of them on goal. Senior midfielder Brett Taylor led the way with 5 shots (2 on goal), and junior forward Vinicius Dantas fired 4 shots.
The victory gives Azusa Pacific a 16-3-1 overall record, while California Baptist drops to 15-4 and awaits a final rating and other conference tournament results throughout the NAIA to see if it will receive an at-large bid into the NAIA Men’s Soccer National Championship. The GSAC Tournament champion will receive the conference’s automatic bid into the 31-team NAIA national tournament field.