AZUSA, Calif.-- The 2012 Azusa Pacific men’s soccer season saw quite the dichotomy between the Cougars at home, and the Cougars on the road.
When Azusa Pacific played in front of its fans it was a dominant force, posting a 9-1 record while holding better than a 2-to-1 goal ratio (32-15) over its opponents. On the road however, the team encountered its fair share of struggles, registering a 3-5-1 record with a break-even clip of goal scored and allowed (17-17).
And while the Jeckyll-Hyde Cougars still managed a fifth place finish (10-4) in their first season of Pacific West Conference play, they believe that with their traveling woes in the rear view, a conference crown is within grasp.
“There was a lot of unknown going into last season with the new conference. The biggest adjustment is the amount of travel in the PacWest. I think it was a growing experience for the guys last year. Not only going to play new opponents on new fields, but the distance and amount of hours spent on the bus. Now, having been through it, I think the guys will be better adapted to performing well away from home,” said fifth year head coach Dave Blomquist, whose .744 winning percentage (57-18-5) is the second-highest mark in program history.
Adjusting to life on the road will be key for the 2013 campaign. Last season the Azusa Pacific offense generated 17.1 shots and 8.4 shots on goal per game at the Cougar Soccer Complex, while limiting opposing teams to just 8.4 shots and 4.2 shots on goal per game. But on the road the Cougars rattled off only 13 shots per game and allowed 16.2 a night. The home-away contrast permeated every aspect of play as Azusa Pacific saw its corner kicks see a significant drop on the road, falling from 6.1 per match at home, to 3.8 on the road.
But with a team that welcomes back over 70 percent of its offense from 2012, and five players that started at least half of the team’s 19 matches, it seems like the team is set to return to the typical kind of success the program’s been accustomed to over the past two decades.
“The program here has a high standard for success, both in the standings and how we play on the field. We’ll focus on our performance and playing the Azusa Pacific way as well as we possibly can. We know if we do that the results will take care of themselves. Every year we have aspirations to finish atop the conference, and we want to go far in the National Christian College Athletics Association playoffs. This year is no different,” said Blomquist.
Azusa Pacific’s non-conference schedule features two prominent California Collegiate Athletics Association programs in Cal State L.A. and Cal State Dominguez Hills, along with the likes of perennial NAIA power Concordia. The Cougars will also play Hope International, Montana State Billings, and take on PacWest foe California Baptist in a rare non-conference meeting. Four of their first five matches are at the Cougar Soccer Complex as part of a 10-day five-game stretch, beginning with the opener at Cal State L.A. on Thursday Sept. 5. Azusa Pacific will open its home slate against CSUDH on Sept. 7. The two teams battled to a 1-1 tie in last season’s opener.
“Cal State L.A. is a very good CCAA team. It’ll be a true test. They’ve finished near the top of a tough conference in recent years. Then we return home for a tough five game stretch. Cal State Dominguez Hills is good every year, and I expect that to be a battle. And then we have Concordia as an old GSAC rival. With so many games and tough opponents, it’s going to take contribution from a lot of players from the team to have a good start. I think those games will test us and prepare us for the conference schedule,” said Blomquist.
The Cougars kick off their PacWest schedule against Holy Names on Sept. 19, and face Academy of Art on the 21st before welcoming the PacWest’s four Hawai’i schools beginning on Sept. 30. A non-conference blip with California Baptist gives way to the team’s longest road stretch of the year, where it’ll play five matches away from home from Oct. 12-30. Azusa Pacific then closes its home schedule against California Baptist on Nov. 2 before finishing the regular season at Point Loma on Nov. 9.
Azusa Pacific’s front line returns a talented group of underclassmen. Last season the duo of Keyran Kelly and Keenan Armbrust combined for eight goals and five assists in their first season. Joining them in the final third will be the team’s third-leading scorer from 2012 in Leonardo Grigg, who tallied six goals and one assist as a sophomore. Daniel Stratton saw time as a true freshman, and Andrew Delaplane, who is coming off of his redshirt freshman season, is ready to contribute in his second year with the team.
“They’ve all looked good in training, and I think we have a real solid group coming back. The sophomore trio of Keyran, Keenan, and Daniel should have a very productive season,” said Blomquist. “Keenan can be one of our most dangerous strikers. His size and speed are really what set him apart. He can play either down the middle or out wide. Keyran is great on the ball. He’s dangerous on the dribble and he’s insightful in his passing in the final third. I really think with the group coming back, in their second year in the system, we’ll be a dangerous team.”
Azusa Pacific’s attack last season was one of the PacWest’s most prolific, averaging the conference’s second-highest goal total at 2.58 per match. The team finished in the top half of the league in shots, shots per game, shots on goal, corner kicks, and points, and with over 70 percent of the Cougars’ offense returning, the team should have no trouble finding the back of the net.
With a plethora of talent and experience, the midfield will be the Cougars’ biggest strength. Oktay Bulut, the PacWest Newcomer of the Year in 2012 and a preseason all-conference selection, leads the veteran group. The midfield features three seniors in Bulut, Steven Shiokari, and Trenton Titus. Bulut led the Cougars with 11 goals and seven assists as a junior, and is No. 3 among PacWest returners in points (29).
Titus was an All-GSAC performer in 2011 before redshirting 2012 due to a labrum injury, and Shiokari enjoyed his most productive campaign in 2012 with four goals and two assists, and will look to continue that success in 2013.
“They’ve been in the program for a while now and they understand the system and style of play. They’re the players that teams will look towards to run the game for us. They’ve played in the system and with each other for such a long time that everything is becoming second nature. They have such a good rapport as a group,” said Blomquist.
Joining the experienced group in the middle will be sophomore transfer Raul Martinez, who prepped at nearby Bonita High School, while Colton Lamb will look for a significant role in his second season with the program.
“Raul adds a lot. He’s a really good passer and a smart player. He fits in really well with what we’re doing. I also expect Colton to play a much more significant role this year. He’s a very smart player and a great passer. So I think he fits in really well with what we’re trying to do on the field and as he grows he’ll get better and better,” said Blomquist.
Last season the Cougars saw their shutout total drop from nine in 2011, to three in 2012. Their goals against average rose from 0.86 two seasons ago, to 1.73 last year. But thankfully for Azusa Pacific, the team returns a pair of starters in the back, including 2012 All-PacWest senior Garrett Mehrguth, and talented sophomore Tanner Akol, who started all 19 games as a true freshman.
Mehrguth and Akol will anchor a defense that features its share of returners and newcomers. Incoming sophomore Nate Nugen has earned rave reviews in the preseason training, while Jamarko Washington is entering his fourth season with the program, ready to step in for an increased role on the field. Sophomores Cole Lambert and Dane Johnson will give the defense increased depth as talented and athletic players, giving Azusa Pacific a chance to see a return of its traditionally strong defense.
“I wouldn’t call it a super experienced back line, but I like the talent we have there. Garrett’s been with the program, and understands how the team plays. He brings a toughness to the defensive side. Jamarko has grown a lot as a player, and is ready to play a significant part in our back four,” said Blomquist. “Nate is a very good player. He could probably play six or seven positions. He’s well rounded, and a good, athletic passer. He’s done very well from the get-go, and he fit in right away.”
Azusa Pacific may have graduated Joe Geletko, whose 18 career shutouts rank fourth on the program’s all-time list, but it still managed to return a trio of keepers who have each seen significant time between the posts as Cougars. Slated to lead the way in goal is junior Chip Cox, while Jeff Dunn and Scott Kinney will push for playing time as seniors.
Cox played a substantial role as a true freshman in 2010, appearing in three matches, and starting in the GSAC semifinals where he posted a shutout in a 1-0 defeat of California Baptist. In 2012 Cox started five matches, registering one shutout and a 1.18 goals against average.
In 2012 Dunn started three times, leading the Cougars to a win in each of those games. He also entered midway through the team’s 3-2 victory over California Baptist, tabbing a crucial save to help the Cougars hold on for the win. Kinney has played in two games with Azusa Pacific, and has yet to allow a goal.
“Chip will most likely be our everyday keeper. He’s ready, and he’s very good. He’s played significant games in the past and he’s ready to take the lead for us. We’re also lucky because we have two very capable backup keepers with Scott and Jeff. Those three push each other so well in practice. They make each other better and no matter who’s in there I feel good about our chances,” said Blomquist.
For the second consecutive season Cougar home games will be streamed on Azusa Pacific’s online video portal. The first broadcast will be part of the men’s and women’s soccer doubleheader against Cal State Dominguez Hills on Saturday Sept. 7th. The Cougars Thursday night tilt with Montana State Billings on Sept. 12 will also be available online, as well as each of the team’s five home PacWest matches.
Each match can be seen on a pay-per-view basis, with single game passes costing $7.95. Season passes are also available for a discounted rate.