DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- After 2 exhilaratingly close games to open the national tournament, the No. 5-seed Azusa Pacific ditched the suspense by putting on their finest performance in dispatching the No. 9-seed Hastings (Neb.), 4-0, to reach the national championship game.
While the first 2 wins ended in celebratory fashion the outcome tonight was well in hand much earlier. The Cougars looked relaxed after the opening minutes and settled in nicely after Brandon Stirm hit a cross to Sven Simon who ripped a shot from the right side of the box past the diving keeper, Chris Ladwig, far post, to put his team on top 1-0 in the 23rd minute.
“I saw Andriy (Budnyy) take off and he layed a perfect ball to me and it was a 1-time to the back post and Sven made a great shot,” Stirm said.
Simon’s goal was a signal of things to come as the Cougars were able to run on the Broncos back 4 throughout the game.
“I thought we were fantastic from beginning to end,” said head coach Phil Wolf. “It’s great to play like that on a stage like this.”
Azusa Pacific had several great chances to increase its lead in the first half but Andriy Budnyy was twice turned away by Ladwig. He also later had a header sail just over the crossbar.
The lead was held intact when James Crawford turned in a spectacular save with 6:35 left in the first half. Tommy Sawan blasted a shot that Crawford managed to punch over the crossbar keeping the Broncos scoreless. Crawford recorded the first postseason shutout of his career.
“James has done great. He has solidified us since he's been in there," Wolf said of his freshman keeper.
The near misses turned into goals in the second half as the Cougars scored 3 times to break open the game.
Skelly Kellar scored from 20 yards out after receiving a corner kick from Stirm. With Hastings (19-2-3) marking inside the box Kellar was left alone and his shot glanced off a defender and found the back of the net to make it 2-0.
“There was no one in front of me and usually we put it on goal but I was at the top of the box area alone,” said Kellar. “Everyone is so focused. It is like we are have 1 spirit, 1 purpose and 1 goal and now we are only 90 minutes away.”
Kolt Callaway and Jared Karkas added goals for the Cougars for the final margin of victory which was a bit startling considering that Hastings had defeated the top-seed Rio Grande, 2-0, to reach the semifinals.
“They fought in the first half and the wind was against us which made it tough,” said Simon. “But our defense organized well the entire time and we were loose tonight and playing like we did in the GSAC. We don’t need to have fear.”
The Cougars (20-4-0) now head to their first NAIA Championship game in program history and a familiar foe is waiting for them. The No. 2-seed Lindsey Wilson (Ky.) defeated Southern Nazarene (Okla.), 2-1, in overtime to advance to the title game. The Blue Raiders knocked Azusa Pacific out of the tournament last season 4-3 on penalty kicks after a 1-1 draw in the quarterfinals.
“It’s going to be fun to play them again because they knocked us out last year,” Stirm said.
It marks the third time in as many trips for the Cougars that the 2 programs have met in the NAIA Tournament. Lindsey Wilson upended the Azusa Pacific, 3-1, in 1996.
The Blue Raiders (22-1-0) have won 9 consecutive matches. The championship match will kickoff at 7 p.m. (EST).