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A Penalty Killer

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November 21, 2006
Gary Pine
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. –- Azusa Pacific had the national championship on the tip of its toe. In fact, the Cougars were so close to the crown, that to not have it now is the most painful of results.

Keeper Isaac Unruh blocked 3 penalty kicks in a shootout and Nick Gay converted his attempt in the tenth round to give Graceland University (Iowa) a breathtaking victory (7-6 in a shootout) over Azusa Pacific in the NAIA men’s soccer national championship game played on the campus of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

The victory hands Graceland its first-ever NAIA national championship while Azusa Pacific reluctantly has to settle for runner-up for the second straight year.

The 2 teams endured uncharacteristic Florida weather conditions that consisted of 48-degree weather, 15 to 20 mile-per-hour winds and a light drizzle throughout the second half and on into overtime. Thus they played to a scoreless draw through 110 minutes of action, forcing the championship title to be determined by a shootout.

Once there, each team converted its first 5 penalty-kicks to move the shootout into sudden-death, where Unruh took over. He stoned Cougars’ Tony Rotunno and Jared Karkas on back-to-back PKs that were driven to Unruh’s left. However, Cougar keeper James Crawford was equal to the task. With the national championship on the line, he blocked the Yellow Jacket’s Filip Prostran with a low dive to his left. Cougar Steve Lenhart missed wide left but Graceland then shanked 2 tries wide of the net to keep the shootout locked at 5-5 through 8 rounds.

Each team easily converted their efforts in the ninth round, but in the tenth, Unruh stepped up again, stopping Kolt Calloway’s shot to set up Gay’s heroics, a simple low-line drive just to the right of center, ending the shootout and sending a flurry of Graceland players and fans sprinting onto the field.

Azusa Pacific, which finishes its season at 17-4-3, controlled regulation play more than Graceland, and generated better scoring opportunities than the Yellow Jackets. The Cougars placed 5 shots on goal, compared to Graceland’s 3, and had 3 great chances to tally the game’s only goal. In the 24th minute, Calloway collected a loose ball in the box and riffled a bullet that Unruh stopped. With just over 20 minutes left in regulation, Lenhart just missed high on an uncontested shot from the top of the Box.

Meanwhile, Graceland was seemingly playing for a shootout, unable to press anything against the Cougar defense and eventually choosing instead to put its championship fates in hands of Unruh, who finishes his collegiate career with 12 shutouts during the 2006 season.

The 10-round shootout, which is somewhat unusual in the world of collegiate soccer, was the second one for the Cougars at this championship. Azusa Pacific advanced past Lee after a 9-8 shootout advantage in a first-round game.

Unruh did not yield a goal in 4 NAIA Tournament games and as a result was named the tournament MVP, while the Cougars’ Lenhart was tabbed as the outstanding offensive player after scoring 2 tournament goals and assisting on another.

Graceland, which downed Azusa Pacific 2-1 earlier in the regular season, finished its campaign at 18-4-2.

Along with Lenhart, Cougars Sven Simon, Skelly Kellar and Jared Karkas were named to the NAIA All-Tournament team.