AZUSA, Calif. -- A pair of juniors led the NAIA’s No. 11-ranked Azusa Pacific to a key 2-1 win over No. 22-ranked Fresno Pacific to wrap up the Cougars’ regular season Thursday afternoon in Azusa.
Brandon Stirm scored in the final 10 minutes of the first half, and Sven Simon added a well-executed header midway through the second half off a perfect cross from senior Dustin McBride to give Azusa Pacific a 2-0 lead in the final regular season home game for 8 Cougar seniors.
“Dustin had a great touch, and he crossed it perfectly,” said Simon, who took the team lead in goals with 11. “There were some defenders around me, but they weren’t close enough, and the ball was so perfect, there was nothing they could do. I didn’t have to do much but try to place it.”
With just under 9 minutes to play in the first half, sophomore Matt Kristoff found Stirm streaking up the left side. Stirm beat 1 defender and sent a shot past Sunbirds goalkeeper Brandon Cave to put the Cougars up, 1-0. With a 10-4 shots advantage in the period, Azusa Pacific took the 1-goal lead into halftime.
In the 75th minute, sophomore Beau Hayden played the ball forward to McBride, who touched it around 1 Fresno Pacific defender before crossing it to Simon in a crowd of Sunbirds defenders packed into the box. Simon rose above the crowd to send a header into the side netting at the far post and give the Cougars a 2-0 lead. Simon’s goal was the only Cougar shot in the second half, and it became very important when Fresno Pacific answered in the 84th minute.
“I had just come into the game, so I had fresh legs and Beau played it early to me,” said McBride. “I took a touch, looked up and saw 3 orange jerseys and Sven. I figured I would just try to put it on his head and see what happens, and you just get lucky sometimes, I guess.”
The Sunbirds cut the lead to 2-1 when Carlos Velasco’s header found the back of the Cougar goal, but the Azusa Pacific defense held firm in the back over the remainder of the game. The Cougars did not allow any more Sunbirds shots over the final 6-plus minutes and cleared every opportunity from danger, including a Sunbirds corner kick in the closing seconds.
“We didn’t pass the ball very well, and we got a little tired in the second half,” said Cougar head coach Phil Wolf, whose squad pulled off a hard-fought 1-0 road win over No. 6-ranked Concordia just 3 days earlier. “When we looked at the schedule for this week at the beginning of the year, we knew this was going to be a tough week. At this point, we are in a good position, but we need to get rolling. At this time of the year, the teams that get on a roll are the teams that win.”
Simon was persistent in the attack all game, sending 5 shots toward the Fresno Pacific goal, and Kristoff provided an offensive spark off the bench for the Cougars with 3 shots. Senior Skelly Kellar helped Azusa Pacific control much of the run of play in the first half, setting up creative attack opportunities from all over the field, and senior Donny Dequine was active in a similar role off the bench in the second half.
“We were all focused on playing well defensively first and keeping the ball out of our own net,” said Kellar. “When we play like that, it relieves the pressure for us to score. After our rough stretch in the middle of the season, it has been nice to figure things out and start having fun again. We have been playing great and not letting in goals, and once we figured out we could stop teams with our defense, it seemed like we started scoring goals again.”
The game was the final regular season home game for 8 Azusa Pacific seniors: Kellar, McBride, Dequine, Tony Rotunno, Damon Brooks, Michael Micek, Jeff Teach and Rhoman Goyenechea.
Kellar, who ranks third in program history in career assists with 26, made his 78th consecutive start for Azusa Pacific.
“I felt like over the last 4 years, we have all grown up together, and we have all been really tight, supportive and encouraging each other,” said Kellar, who started his 78th consecutive game. “It has been a privilege to battle with these guys, and the improvement in this program under Coach Wolf has made it an honor to play for Azusa Pacific. It has been an exciting thing to experience, going from not even making the playoffs as a freshman all the way to the magical run all the way to the championship game last year.”
Wolf, whose 2003 squad went 11-7 overall, 5-5 in GSAC, and missed the regional playoffs, has led the program to unprecedented heights, establishing an Azusa Pacific men’s soccer first for NAIA Tournament wins (2004), highest-ever finish (2005 NAIA runner-up), single-season win total (20 in 2005), along with the program’s first-ever No. 1 ranking in the NAIA earlier this season.
“This group of seniors deserves a lot of credit for changing this program,” said Wolf. “Every single one has gotten us to where we are, each in his own way. I am proud to be a part of it, and I am proud to coach them.”
Azusa Pacific, still in contention for the GSAC championship, temporarily moved into first place in the conference standings before the other 10 teams wrap up the regular season this weekend. Concordia could clinch the title outright with a win at Fresno Pacific Saturday, but a loss or a tie opens the door for Vanguard to win the crown with a win at The Master’s. If both Concordia and Vanguard lose or tie, the Cougars will own a share of the GSAC title.
“Games like today show that we have commitment and heart, even when our legs aren’t under us,” said McBride. “Today it really hit me that this was my last GSAC home game, and I started thinking about all the memories. It has been special seeing our program go full circle by my senior year, where we have made a lot of friendships and memories together, and that’s all going to last. We have done so much together, now all I want to do is win the national championship.”
With the win, Azusa Pacific finishes the regular season at 12-3-2 overall, 7-2-1 in GSAC play, while Fresno Pacific heads into its regular season finale against Concordia Saturday at 10-3-3 overall, 4-3-2 in GSAC. The Cougars will host an NAIA Region II first round playoff game Wed., Nov. 1 at 1 p.m. The opponent and the full regional playoff field will be announced Sunday afternoon.