Last year, Cougar Athletics counted down the last 30 days of summer with the Cougar Countdown blog series, which contained 30 items of interest to Cougar fans leading into the 2012-13 school year. For the summer of 2013, Cougar Athletics takes a look back with a ranking of Azusa Pacific’s top 13 teams of all-time, which was compiled by the office of Sports Information with input from current and past coaches and administrators. The top 13 teams in Cougar Athletics history will be revealed one at a time each Thursday throughout the summer, culminating with the No. 1 team on August 22.
MAY 30 -- No. 13: 2000 Softball
JUNE 6 -- No. 12: 2005 Men’s Tennis
JUNE 13 -- No. 11: 1985 Football
JUNE 20 -- No. 10: 1998 Men’s Basketball
JUNE 27 -- No. 9: 1983 Track & Field
JULY 4 -- No. 8: 2011 Women’s Basketball
JULY 11 -- No. 7: 1980 Volleyball
JULY 18 -- No. 6: 2007 Baseball
The countdown continues with the No. 5 team:
2007 Azusa Pacific Men’s Soccer
Final NAIA ranking: 1st
NAIA National Champions
No other team in Azusa Pacific history may be as familiar with the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat as 2007 men’s soccer. Those Cougars endured not one, but two national championship match losses before claiming the only NAIA title in program history in a season in which Azusa Pacific showed off the stingiest defense, and quite possibly most talented side in the school’s 43-year soccer history.
Two years earlier a young Azusa Pacific team made an unlikely run to the final of the NAIA tournament, only to be sent home with a 4-1 loss against Lindsey Wilson. But with the majority of the squad returning, things were looking up for the Cougars. In 2006 Azusa Pacific again reached the championship match of the NAIA tournament where they outshot Graceland (Iowa) 16-10 through 110 minutes of scoreless play to force a shootout. And after 10 rounds of PKs, the Cougars once again became acquainted with the runner-up trophy as Graceland stormed the field to raise up the NAIA banner after a 7-6 shootout score.
But in 2007, fueled by the pain of playing second fiddle, everything came together for Azusa Pacific as the Cougars recorded the team’s first undefeated regular season, then ran the table at the NAIA national tournament before defeating Concordia 2-0 in the final.
“It was the culmination of a process that had occurred years earlier. That was kind of the pinnacle of what had happened. To go to two straight, and have a great chance at winning the second was tough to take. So for me 2007 was the final chapter of a story that had unbelievable moments, both high and low, good and bad,” said Phil Wolf, who coached the Cougars from 2001-2008.
With an undisputed pair of senior leaders in Sven Simon and Steven Lenhart the Cougars entered the 2007 campaign with one goal in mind: winning the NAIA championship.
“Those two losses were certainly in the back of my mind. It was sour, losing two finals like that. But there were really good things we drew from that. That whole season we knew we were good enough to win and it definitely helps to be in two straight finals. We knew what we were, and we knew that we could win it,” said Lenhart.
The team knew what it took to get to the title match, and with a veteran laden roster, and as much talent as the program had ever put on the field, anything less than a championship banner would be a failure.
“It was a little unfair to ask them to win, but that group had been through the wars and the battles. In 2005 we were probably too young, and in some ways 2006 was deserving of a championship. But the fuel that two losses in a row gave us, combined with how many competitive guys we had on that team makes me think that group was destined for success regardless,” said Wolf.
In 2007 the Cougars return lineup that was littered with stars. That season Lenhart, Simon, Kolt Callaway, Jared Karkas, Eric Winblad, and Brandon Stirm each received All-Golden State Athletic Conference recognition.
Lenhart scored 16 goals and tallied a team-leading 36 points to earn GSAC Player of the Year honors, while Simon surpassed the 30-point plateau with 12 goals and seven assists. Karkas dished out 11 assists, two off of the Cougar record, while Crawford and the back-four rewrote the defensive record book, limiting opponents to 0.49 goals per game (11 total), while registering 14 shutouts (all Azusa Pacific records). The Cougar defense allowed two or more goals only three times and only surrendered 62 shots on goal.
“That group starts with Crawford. He never made mistakes and he was so solid. If another team was going to score a goal it’s because they earned it,” said Wolf. “I haven’t had two guys that could read the game like Winblad and Mark Peters. They were a different level intellectually. It was a pretty sensational back four, not big or typical, but four really good players, and when you combine them with Crawford you have something special.”
Offensively Azusa Pacific returned over 75% of its goals from the past year, with each of its top-three goal scorers (Lenhart, Simon, and Stirm) coming back for their senior seasons. But even with the surplus of talent returning, the Cougar coaching staff was scratching its collective head on how to replace All-American centermid Skelly Kellar. Enter Oklahoma Baptist transfer Elijah Mwansanga.
“Mwansanga was the missing piece. Without him, we don’t win it,” said current Azusa Pacific head coach Dave Blomquist, who served as one of Wolf’s assistants from 2006-08. “Mwasanga brought a real steady and calming influence on the field. He was the perfect partner for Callaway in the middle. He was so steady, always in the right place, and covered when he needed to. I’m not sure what we would have done without him because we were really talented and experienced everywhere else.”
With all of the pieces intact the Cougars strung together the most impressive regular season in Azusa Pacific history. The team opened the year on a tear, outscoring opponents 31-2 in the first nine matches. Azusa Pacific registered eight shutouts in that span, including six consecutive after overtime wins over Hannibal-LaGrange (Mo.) and perennial NAIA power Lindsey Wilson, which trounced the Cougars 4-1 in the ’05 title match.
The Cougars survived a 3-2 overtime scare against Westmont to improve to 10-0, and after four wins by nearly three goals a game, Azusa Pacific found itself at 14-0, 7-0 in GSAC play. A 1-1 tie against Point Loma ended the winning streak, but kept the unbeaten season alive, and after a 5-1 defeat of Hope International, and a 2-1 win over Vanguard the Cougars closed the regular season with a 16-0-1 record for the first and only unbeaten regular season in program history.
But in the first round of the NAIA Regional playoffs the Cougars ran into trouble, falling 2-1 to Westmont to end the 17-match unbeaten streak. It wasn’t how Azusa Pacific wanted to kick off the playoffs, but like any great team the Cougars found a way to use it.
“I think that loss took some pressure off. It showed that our season wasn’t about the undefeated record, but about getting to that last game and winning it. That loss gave us the freedom to let go of that undefeated record and focus on our ultimate goal,” said Lenhart.
The loss dinged the Cougars’ record, but with such a strong season already under their belt, they were positioned well for an at-large bid into the national championships. Azusa Pacific maintained its ranking atop the NAIA, and earned the top-seed for the 48th annual NAIA men’s soccer championship.
“One of the goals for the regular season was to be in in position for the at-large berth if things didn’t go our way in the Regional playoff. The loss was a blessing in disguise because it gave us time to rest and be healthy. Looking back it was a good thing to have that time off because having an undefeated, or great regular season, was never the priority or the focus. We wanted to do enough to be playing our best in the end and make the national tournament. We knew that if we did those two things we’d have a shot at winning it all,” said Blomquist.
In the opening round of the tournament Simon scored twice as the Cougars got past MidAmerica Nazarene (Kan.). In the quarterfinals Azusa Pacific found itself trailing Fresno Pacific 1-0 at the half, but an FPU own goal, and goals by Lenhart and Mike Wilson advanced the Cougars into the semifinals.
In the semifinals Azusa Pacific faced a Simon Fraser (B.C.) team in the midst of an eight-game shutout streak, and through 68 minutes of play it looked like that scoreless run would continue. But in the 69th minute Callaway found Lenhart deep in the Simon Fraser defense, where the future Major League Soccer star drilled a left-footed shot past the keeper to give the Cougars a 1-0 lead. Then, with five seconds on the clock Simon Fraser nearly notched the equalizer, but Crawford knocked it away as time expired to put the Cougars in their third straight championship match.
On the day of the title match against Concordia in Olathe, Kan. the weather forced Wolf and the coaching staff to make an early decision. With winds howling at over 20 miles per hour Wolf opted to play with the wind at his back in the first half in hopes that the Cougars could take an early edge. And his plan worked as the Cougars peppered off 22 first half shots while holding the Eagles’ offense without an attempt through the first 50 minutes.
“We had a choice to take the wind or go against it. So we took it because I wanted us to put the foot down and take it to them early. We created a lot of chances and we had some very dangerous opportunities,” said Wolf.
But even with the non-stop barrage, Azusa Pacific found itself in a 0-0 stalemate deep into the first half before Simon gave the Cougars a 1-0 edge in the 42nd minute.
“I was happy with what we were doing offensively, but if you are 0-0 at halftime and you have to go and play against the wind in the second half you’re a little worried. Sven’s goal relieved a lot of tension. Once it went in it was a pretty safe result at that point, but far from finished. We were so close the year before, and you don’t want those memories coming back,” said Wolf.
Concordia got off the first shot of the second half, but the stout Cougar defense kept the Eagles out of the goal. In the 72nd minute Ashkon Banihashemi gave Azusa Pacific breathing room when he took a Simon pass and scored left side for a commanding 2-0 lead. The Cougars out-shot Concordia 28-4 in the match, and as the final seconds ticked off the clock a flurry of Cougar coaches and players stormed the field to celebrate the long-awaited championship.
“Right after we won I remember a sense of relief. Then I looked over and saw Phil’s reaction, and he just walked away from it all, celebrating on his own. I think everyone as a whole was stoked to celebrate together, but individually we all knew how hard we worked and how much time we put in. It was a sense of things coming together. It was the ultimate victory,” said Lenhart, who was named the NAIA Tournament MVP.
It was the end of a journey that began with the program’s first-ever NAIA tournament victory in 2004. Four seasons later a team with as much individual talent as any grew into one of the best teams in athletics history at Azusa Pacific.
“I don’t think in the midst of a season you can ever say this is the year it’s going to happen, because you never know what is going to happen at the national tournament. But I knew we could win it because we had such a special group of guys. Players sacrificed personal awards to be on a great team. We had a number of all-conference caliber players, and some of them lose a little recognition because of the greatness of the team. There was more of a sacrifice for team success and in the end, that’s what made us champions,” said Blomquist.
Mwansanga, Karkas, and Lenhart were named to the NAIA All-Tournament team, and one month later Lenhart became the second Cougar men’s soccer player to be drafted by the MLS when he was selected (48th overall) by the Columbus Crew. He now plays for the San Jose Earthquakes, and has 29 career goals and 10 assists in six seasons.
“I would rank that season right up there at the top. This is true about all of the other years, but our team was only as strong as the weakest guy. We treated our whole team as a unit. There were guys that stepped up during different parts of the season. It was really cool how everyone stayed committed, regardless of playing time. For us the team was the strength... we really believed in one another,” said Lenhart.
Wolf, who now heads the Point Loma program, was named the NAIA Coach of the Year after guiding the team to three straight NAIA championship matches. He left the Cougar program after the 2008 season to accept an assistant coaching position at NCAA Division I Southern Methodist (Texas), where he helped the Mustangs to an NCAA quarterfinal appearance in 2010, and a second round trip in 2011.