COSTA MESA, Calif. -- Vanguard scored 3 goals in 15 minutes midway through the first half, a flurry that gave the NAIA’s No. 19-ranked Lions a 3-0 win over No. 12 Azusa Pacific in Saturday’s Golden State Athletic Conference postseason tournament championship game in Costa Mesa.
The Cougars appeared to be orchestrating the better attack from the start, generating 4 shots in the first 17 minutes to just 1 for Vanguard, but GSAC Player of the Year Kevin Cornwall scored at the 17:07 mark on the back end of a corner kick to give the Lions an early 1-0 lead.
Eight minutes later, All-GSAC midfielder Kyle O’Brien scored from just outside the box to the low right corner of the net to push the lead to 2-0, and senior midfielder Tomislav Colic buried a perfect 30-yard strike inside the upper left corner in the 32nd minute for the 3-0 lead.
“All 3 of their goals were orchestrated pretty well,” Cougar head coach Dave Blomquist said. “Our defending on them could have been tighter to try and keep them from getting those chances, but through a 90-minute game every good team is going to create chances. Vanguard is a very good team, so we knew they would create some chances and they took 3 of them really well.”
From there, the Vanguard defense kept most of the action outside the box, and when the Azusa Pacific attack did find room, senior All-GSAC goalkeeper Trevor Herrera was there for 7 saves to help hand the Cougars just their second shutout of the year. The Lions did so despite Azusa Pacific’s 15-8 edge in shots, with junior All-GSAC forward Vinicius Dantas firing a game-high 6 shots for the Cougars.
Azusa Pacific, now 16-4-1 overall, advanced to the GSAC Tournament final despite playing all but 14 minutes of the tournament at less than full strength. Sophomore goalkeeper Joe Geletko picked up a red card early in the first half of the Cougars’ 4-0 quarterfinal win over Hope International and served his 1-game suspension in last Saturday’s 1-0 semifinal win at California Baptist. In that contest, junior All-GSAC center back Lucas Young also received a red card and had to serve his mandatory 1-game suspension for Saturday’s championship game.
For the third straight game, a player was issued a red card, although in Saturday’s championship it was Vanguard’s sophomore defender Mario Merdzic who was sent off for throwing an elbow at a Cougar player during a scuffle that followed a foul in the final minute of action. Merdzic will now miss next week’s national tournament opening round contest.
With the win, Vanguard successfully defended its regular-season GSAC title and claimed the conference’s automatic bid into the 31-team NAIA Men’s Soccer Championship field. The Lions’ 13-7 overall record includes 6 forfeit losses, all against non-conference opponents, when Vanguard’s head coach Randy Dodge failed to serve his mandatory 1-game suspension from a red card he picked up in the Lions’ final game in the 2009 season, a GSAC Tournament defeat to Biola. Because he did not serve his suspension until he sat out Vanguard’s 3-2 win at Azusa Pacific, the Lions were by rule forced to forfeit every game he coached until his suspension was served.
Azusa Pacific now awaits Sunday’s final NAIA coaches poll, which will be factored into the final NAIA Modified RPI ratings, which are used to select 6 at-large teams to go with 25 automatic conference bids to round out the 31-team national tournament field.
“I’m proud of the guys and the way they battled, so now it’s a waiting game,” Blomquist said. “I think the guys deserve more and are hungry for more. Obviously they’re disappointed with this result, but if I know these guys and these seniors, they’ll want to get right back at it and improve from this game.”
The Cougars were 15th in the most recent Modified RPI report, which was released Oct. 27, and the final Modified RPI rating will include Azusa Pacific’s 3 wins in the final 4 games, as well as a steady climb up the Coaches’ Top 25 poll over the past 3 weeks. Those factors, plus a handful of conference tournaments won by teams ahead of Azusa Pacific in the Modified RPI standings signals a likely at-large bid for the Cougars to return to the NAIA Tournament for the first time since 2007, when it won the NAIA title.