AZUSA, Calif. -- Some have waited longer than others to win a Region II championship but each member of the NAIA’s No. 7-ranked Azusa Pacific had been looking forward to the Cougars rematch against No. 16-ranked Concordia this afternoon at the Azusa Square.
Led by an early offensive assault, the Cougars ran up a 2 goal first half lead and cruised to a 3-1 win over Concordia to win their first Region II championship in program history. Azusa Pacific will now make preparations for the NAIA Tournament next week in Daytona Beach, Fla.
Matt Kristoff scored his first goal of the season on a beautiful arching shot from the top of the box to give the Cougars a 1-0 lead in the 21st minute. “We’ve been working on that in practice and yesterday I was working on hitting a ball across but today I was open at the top of the box and had to take the shot,” said Kristoff.
Less then 7 minutes later, Skelly Kellar scored his second goal of the year when he slid a ball far post to give the Cougars extra cushion and while they continued to stay focused there seemed to be a palpable relaxation on the sideline.
“Every time you score it adds to the dilemma of the other team,” said head coach Phil Wolf. “We were outshooting them and they realize they’re having trouble scoring goals let alone creating chances.”
Azusa Pacific took 12 shots in the first half to just 1 for Concordia. “It was going to happen,” said Kellar of his own personal battle to find the back of the net. “This is a great feeling. We wanted to come out and play hard. Last year we came up short but this year we proved to be the better team.”
The Cougars (17-4) found motivation not just in having never won a regional title but in their third place finish in the GSAC behind co-champion Concordia (14-7). They also remembered losing in the championship game to Holy Names on penalty kicks last season.
“In life you rarely get 2 chances to get into a situation like this,” said Andriy Budnyy, the GSAC Player of the Year. “This is why you work in practice and stay afterwards to work more. Everyone stepped up today and we showed we deserved to win this.”
The Cougars added their third goal in the 65th when Beau Hayden served in a ball that, as he has done so many times this season, Steven Lenhart headed in to make it 3-0.
The Eagles added a goal by Josh Bickel in the 73rd minute to complete the scoring.
“With the injuries and stuff the last month and a half people didn’t think we were as good of a team,” said Wolf. “Today we were as healthy as we have been in a while. We lost 3 games we felt we shouldn’t have so it was huge for us to win this.”
For Ian Leibbrandt, a 4-year starter, the win was special. “This is very sweet. Each player brings something different and we all have confidence in each other. Everyone puts their individual game aside to play together as a team,” he said.
Unlike last season, Azusa Pacific heads into the national tournament on a winning note. “It is so much better to go to nationals with a championship in your pocket,” said Sven Simon. “We know we can score and now we also have Jared (Karkas) back.”
The game was physical throughout with a total of 32 fouls called on both teams with the Eagles being penalized for 20 of them. Eagles’ keeper Mike Borst had 11 saves and kept the Cougars out of the back of the net with several spectacular saves.
James Crawford got the start in goal for Azusa Pacific and recorded 3 saves of his own.
The Cougars earn an automatic bid into the NAIA Tournament and will face Graceland (Iowa) on Friday, Nov. 18, at 11 a.m. (EST).
Asked to contemplate the goals reached so far this season Budnyy’s eyes focus quickly. He meets your inquisitive glance and says firmly, “We still have 4 more to go.”