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Cause for Celebration

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Published
November 11, 2006
By
Gary Pine
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AZUSA, Calif. – Brandon Stirm’s header off a cross from Dustin McBride found the right corner of the net in the 99th minute of play to lift the NAIA’s No. 10-ranked Azusa Pacific to a thrilling 2-1 overtime victory over No. 8 Vanguard in the NAIA regional championship game.

The victory jettisons Azusa Pacific into next week’s 20-team NAIA Championship Tournament in Daytona Beach, Fla. The Cougars are making their third straight NAIA Tournament appearance, and its fourth in program history, while Vanguard is denied its first-ever trip to the NAIAs.

Stirm’s goal, his seventh of the season, capped an outstanding game in which both teams sparkled on offense and yet made dramatic defensive stops to force overtime.

After a scoreless first half, Vanguard took a 1-0 lead less than 4 minutes into the second frame when freshman Christopher Leiva took advantage of a breakdown in the Cougar backfield to rifle a low, 12-yard line drive to the far side of the goal to beat Cougar keeper James Crawford.

Twenty minutes later, Azusa Pacific got the much-needed equalizer when All-GSAC forward Steve Lenhart, who was playing in his first game in nearly a month, redirected a Skelly Kellar corner-kick with a perfectly-placed diving header to beat Lion keeper William Johnson.

Johnson made amends moments later when he stoned Kellar from 10 yards out after the Cougars used several nifty passes through the box to give Kellar a clean look at the net. The save, 1 of 4 by Johnson on the day, assured overtime.

In the extra period, the Cougars nearly ended the game in the opening minutes. Matt Kristoff broke away from the Lion defense and blistered a one-on-one shot that a charging Johnson deflected. However, the ball continued to slowly bounce toward the goal, clipping the far post before trailing away.

As the first overtime wound to a close, Vanguard appeared to have cleared the ball, but McBride came up with the loose ball and dribbled downfield along the far sideline before lifting his cross that Stirm converted into the game-winner.

Now undefeated in its past 9 games (8-0-1), Azusa Pacific heads to the NAIAs with a 15-3-2 record while Vanguard’s season comes to an end at 14-3-3.