DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Azusa Pacific has endured the past several games with gritted teeth and toughness. The injury depleted Cougars are not interested in using excuses but it became clear when they lost another player before tonight’s national championship game it would be tough sledding.
In the end the No. 2 seed Lindsey Wilson (Ky.) was too strong, fast and deep for the fifth seeded Cougars as it claimed its seventh national championship in as many tries with a 4-1 win, Tuesday night at the ERAU Soccer Complex in Daytona Beach, Fla.
The Cougars knew they would have to deal with a size disadvantage by keeping the ball and playing forward when opportunities presented themselves. However, that task became more difficult after Sven Simon’s pulled hamstring would not allow him to play.
The good news was the back 4 was strengthened by the return of Jared Karkas, who had played briefly in the semifinal, and Tony Rotunno, both of whom had been out with leg injuries.
After an evenly played first 10 minutes, the Blue Raiders began peppering shots on goal with James Crawford recording several saves to keep the game scoreless. In the 22nd minute, Ryan Stewart hit the crossbar with a shot from inside 10 yards as the Cougars continued to hang on.
In the 32nd minute, Lindsey Wilson made 3 substitutions to get fresh legs onto the field. It paid immediate dividends as 50 seconds later Tiyiselan Shipalane, just into the game, hammered home the first goal of the match.
The only shot of the half for Azusa Pacific came in the 40th minute, but the header by David Casarotte was saved by keeper Glenn Fox.
A pivotal goal in the 44th minute put the Cougars in a precarious spot. Serginho Sandy headed home a cross from Fausey Rodriguez to make it 2-0 just before halftime. Azusa Pacific was now forced to look for scoring chances more aggressively.
Coming out of intermission the Cougars appeared to be settling in and keeping the ball more but that quickly changed. Scott Blandford cracked a volley past Crawford from the top of the box to extend the lead to 3-0 and put a damper on any notion Azusa Pacific had of making a comeback.
“They were fantastic. They are just a very good team with no weaknesses,” said head coach Phil Wolf. “We needed everyone playing at full strength and unfortunately we didn’t have them and we didn’t play great. That’s not a good combination and they played us off the park.”
Ian Leibbrandt gave one last breath of hope when he lofted a shot over the head of Fox from 15 yards out to cut the lead to 3-1 but that would be the only score of the night.
Lindsey Wilson would later add another goal by Mkhokheli Dube to complete the scoring.
Azusa Pacific (20-5-0) ended its season in front of a noisy group of Cougar faithful who applauded with a standing ovation what the team had accomplished this season. That group included Southern Nazarene the team that had lost to Lindsey Wilson in the semifinals. The Cougars and the Crimson Storm have several times during the tournament exchanged respectful pleasantries.
The Cougars’ Andriy Budnyy was named the tournament’s Outstanding Offensive Player. Azusa Pacific also placed 3 players in addition to Budnyy on the NAIA All-Tournament Team including Jeff Teach, Skelly Kellar and Sven Simon.
“Each of those guys had a great tournament,” said Wolf. “Sven being out tonight didn’t help us and Dre was fantastic tonight. Teach shut players out for us this week and Skelly was good working on both sides of the ball.”
Budnyy, Leibbrandt, Casarotte, Morgan Cathey and Richie Craven concluded their careers in Cougar uniforms. Cathey was forced out of action during the postseason because of a shoulder injury while Craven has been bothered by a knee problem all season. This particular group of seniors led the program to heights before not been reached.
Leibbrandt leaves with 116 points which puts him third on the Cougars’ all-time career list. He is joined in the top-10 by Budnyy who in 2 seasons accrued 98 points good for seventh place.