AZUSA, Calif. -- The NAIA’s No. 7-ranked Azusa Pacific may have ended its regular season on a down note but that has quickly changed. After getting the result they wanted this afternoon - a 4-1 win over Biola - the Cougars find themselves back in the Region II championship game for a second consecutive season.
With the team starting to amass at full strength they are starting to build a dangerous head of steam and have charged into the final after 2 impressive wins.
This afternoon, with a big crowd on hand, the Cougars (16-4)showed why they are such a dangerous squad to face in the postseason with their goal scoring ability. David Casarotte put Azusa Pacific on the board when he blasted a shot inside the far post in the 27th minute. It was his third goal of the season and gave his team a lift.
“We played well early on but we didn’t create a lot of chances,” said head coach Phil Wolf. “But then as the game progressed we started creating a little bit. It was nice to get that first goal because it established a confidence with where we were at. Then, in the second half, we came out flying and were really pinging it around. I’m not sure if we are back but it is close.”
The Cougars shuffled their personnel at halftime and inserted Steven Lenhart whose height gives him the ability to score on serves across the face of the goal. His first opportunity created a goal for his teammate Sven Simon. Lenhart ripped a shot that Biola keeper Ryan George could not handle cleanly. The rebound came to Simon who put it past George near the top of the box to make it 2-0. It was Simon’s 9th goal of the year.
“We’ve got some injured guys working their way back in so our normal substitution pattern isn’t there but we knew in the first half we were whipping balls in front of the face of the goal and having some success and I thought Steve would be a good player to get in there and then being able to bring Andriy on when they are getting tired is kind of a nice thing,” said Wolf.
The resurgence has been led in a big way by the return of Andriy Budnyy who scored his team-leading 17th goal of the season in the 79th minute. Budnyy rifled a shot from above the box that nicked a Biola defender and into the lower corner of the goal to make it 3-0.
“I have had to adjust and am focused on doing the things that I can do,” Budnyy said. “I’ve been working on that shot for a long time at the top of the box in the center of the field into the low corner with my right foot and it worked. I said before the game if I get a shot like that it is most likely going to go in.”
His goal was assisted by Skelly Kellar who now has 11 on the season and climbs to within 2 of the school record held by Matt Evans who tallied 13 in 2001.
“We are really good on our counter attacks and we played our game. I think we are coming into form right now and playing better with each game and hopefully that is going to continue,” Budnyy added.
Justin Kari completed the scoring for the Cougars when he was brought down inside the box drawing a penalty kick. He hit it well leaving George without an opportunity for the save extending the lead to 4-0. It was his first goal of the season.
Biola (11-8) spoiled the shutout late when John Searles scored on a free kick from 25 yards out to cut the lead to 4-1. However, the game had reached the 88th minute at that stage and the outcome was no longer in doubt.
The Cougars outshot the Eagles, 19-10. George was kept busy as he faced 13 shots on frame. He saved several quality shots amongst his 9 saves but it wasn’t enough in the end. Morgan Cathey had 4 saves for Azusa Pacific.
The fact that the team gets a week of respite before the next match will do some good for the players getting back into form.
“I’m feeling better with each game. I am a really ambitious person and I expect a lot from myself but I’ve got to understand that there are limits but now we have a week off (before the final) so that is great,” Budnyy said.
Now all eyes will be on the Region II title game next Saturday, Nov. 12, at 1 p.m. at the Azusa Square. Top-seeded Azusa Pacific will face third-seeded Concordia in a rematch of the Cougars’ 1-0 loss on Oct. 24.
“Concordia is a good team and they took the result from us a few weeks back. We’re not going to make it bigger deal of it than what it is. But it’s another game that we are going to play and certainly want to win,” said Wolf.