FRESNO, Calif. -- For the second time in less than a month, Azusa Pacific drove away from a visit to Fresno Pacific empty-handed after suffering a 1-0 defeat to the host Sunbirds in the National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA) West Regional championship game.
On Oct. 30, Fresno Pacific laid claim to the Pacific West Conference lead, eventually claiming the conference title in a first-place tie with the Cougars by virtue of the head-to-head tiebreaker, and this time the prize at stake was a berth in the NCCAA Men’s Soccer National Championship, held Dec. 2-7 in Kissimmee, Florida. The Sunbirds, last year’s NCCAA national runner-up, take a 15-4-1 record to this year’s national tournament, while Azusa Pacific’s season comes to an end with a 15-5 overall mark.
“I’m pleased with our performance tonight,” head coach Dave Blomquist said. “I thought we did a better job cutting down their counterattacks through the middle, and we moved the ball into their half a little bit better tonight. The guys deserved better, and this was a game where the difference was a fine line. Both teams created chances and played end to end, and it just didn’t go our way.”
After a scoreless first half, in which Fresno Pacific narrowly missed a pair of dangerous scoring opportunities and out-shot the Cougars by an 8-3 margin, the Sunbirds kept the pressure on in the first 10 minutes of second-half play. Just past the 55-minute mark, a Fresno Pacific counter-attack led to a Bruno Pessoa shot which was blocked by goalkeeper Chip Cox, but Joey Belzil was able to put the rebound into the back of the net for the first score of the game in the 56th minute.
Over the final 30 minutes, Azusa Pacific generated five shots, including two on goal which were saved by Fresno Pacific goalkeeper Fabian Rangel. Fresno Pacific’s best scoring chances had come in the first half, when the Sunbirds hit the post, missed over the crossbar from within 10 yards , and had a third quality shot attempt deflect off a Cougar defender over the goal. After scoring the early second-half goal, the Sunbirds generated just two more shots the rest of the way, focusing more attention on turning away the aggressive Azusa Pacific attack.
Two of the Cougars’ best first-half opportunities, a Trenton Titus header off the crossbar and a Keyran Kelly breakaway, were both called off due to offsides. Senior defender Garrett Mehrguth and sophomore forward Keenan Armbrust each put shots on goal in the second half, but Rangel made both saves to preserve the shutout for Fresno Pacific.
Fresno Pacific finished with a 15-8 advantage in shots, although Azusa Pacific had four shots on goal to the Sunbirds’ three. The Cougars had just one corner kick, which came late in the second half, to Fresno Pacific’s eight corner kicks. Senior midfielder Oktay Bulut registered a team-high three shots, with one on goal.
“I couldn’t be prouder of the guys for the season they had,” Blomquist said. “The seniors led tremendously, and they were great tonight, and a lot of young players got valuable experience and stepped up big-time for us this year.”
After winning seven straight meetings with Fresno Pacific from 2006-10, Azusa Pacific has now lost four in a row, all on the road, to the Sunbirds.