The victory places Azusa Pacific back in the NAIA championship game for the second straight year where the Cougars will take on Graceland University (Iowa) Tuesday (Nov. 21) at 7 p.m. (EST) in a rematch of a regular-season meeting in which the Yellow Jackets handed the Cougars their first loss of the season, 2-1, in Azusa on Sept. 16.
Since he arrived at Azusa Pacific as a 2004 freshman, Stirm, a junior out of San Jose, has fashioned a well-earned reputation for game-winning goals in big-time moments, but all the previous heroics pale in comparison tonight’s tally. From the right side of the field and in the 56th minute of play, Stirm launched a rocket that narrowly missed the Jewell wall and with a spin that forced the ball to arch away from Jewell keeper Andy Shields and into the upper left corner for his eighth goal of the season. The effort shocked everyone except Stirm.
“As I lined up, I had a very good feeling about this one, more than usual,” said Stirm, who scored his first NAIA Tournament goal since registering 2 in his first-ever tournament contest back in 2004. “This is one of the top 5 goals in my career, and given the place and the magnitude of it, I’ll remember it the rest of my life.”
Stirm’s goal broke a scoreless tie in which both keepers sparkled throughout the night. In fact, 10 minutes into the game Azusa Pacific’s James Crawford set the tone with a spectacular save of low line drive off a 2-on-0 William Jewell break.
“James was the man of the match,” said Azusa Pacific coach Phil Wolf. “If he doesn’t make that save, the game is a lot different with Jewell up 1-0 early.”
The Cardinals had Azusa Pacific on its heels in the opening minutes, collecting 3 quick shots on target, all stopped by Crawford. Jewell controlled much of the play until the final 20 minutes of the opening half when the Cougars seemingly evened play.
“They were buzzing all over the place at the start, and I think we were surprised by how much ground they could cover,” said Wolf. “At halftime I told the guys we had to out-work our opponent, and I know they take pride in their work effort. They responded, and Jewell got a little tired in the second half.”
For the game, Azusa Pacific out-shot William Jewell, 22-10, but the Cardinals put on a late flurry with 6 minutes remaining in which they rifled a free kick from 20 yards and then strung together 3 consecutive corner kicks all in a 90-second span.
“James and our defense were amazing tonight,” Stirm said. “We all remained calm and the guys did a great job of knocking the ball out every time.”
Azusa Pacific began to turn the tide of play by taking over control of the midfield and limiting the Cardinals’ offensive runs. In turn, the Cougars put together one attack after another. In fact, they struck the far post on a header late in the first half, and then several minutes after Stirm’s score, Sven Simon hit the post again with an open shot from 10 yards out.
“It took us some time to get used to their speed,” said midfielder Skelly Kellar, “but we pulled our outside middies in and that seemed to help a lot. Eventually, it just came down to who wanted it more, and I know I’ve been waiting 364 days to get back to the this moment.”
Azusa Pacific pushes its unbeaten streak to 12 straight (10-0-2) and has not lost since suffering disheartening back-to-back 1-0 losses, including the program’s first-ever defeat to Hope International, a setback that could have ended any honest aspirations for a national championship.
“I’ve always believed in this group,” countered Kellar, a 4-year starter for the Cougars. “I knew this was a special team that seeks to honor God, work hard, and work for each other. I wanted to get back to championship game to prove that our program is about a team and not individuals.”
“You don’t get to back-to-back finals by mistake,” said Wolf. “These guys are talented and smart. They have great heart and desire and deserve to be here.”
Azusa Pacific improves to 17-3-3 on the season and becomes the first school in 5 years to make back-to-back NAIA championship game appearances (Lindsey Wilson College of Kentucky – 1998-2001). Graceland enters its first-ever title game with a 17-4 record.
“It helps to have already been here before,” said Wolf, whose Cougars lost 4-1 to Lindsey Wilson in last year’s championship game. “Last year, we had never done any of this and didn’t know what to expect. We’re a little more sure of everything going on around us this time and probably more relaxed and focused on the right things.”
In the meeting earlier this year, Graceland came to Azusa Pacific and handed the Cougars their first loss of the season with a 2-1 decision. Bret Loving broke a 1-1 tie with the game-winning goal in the 78th minute. Azusa Pacific out-shot Graceland, 16-5, in the game in which Graceland didn’t get off a shot until the second half.