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Hard-Luck Heartbreak

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December 3, 2008
Joe Reinsch
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Just minutes after senior forward Bridget Brotherton’s spectacular diving header breathed new life into Azusa Pacific, the fourth-seeded Cougars had their breath taken away by a 40-yard rainbow that sailed high into the bright blue Daytona Beach sky and miraculously found the tiniest margin of space between backpedaling freshman goalkeeper Alexa Douglas and the goal. The 40-yard prayer, launched just a few steps onto the Azusa Pacific half of midfield by Concordia senior midfielder Justine Pronovost, bounced once in front of the goal and into the net for the “golden goal” that lifted the fifth-seeded Cavaliers past the fourth-seeded Cougars by a 2-1 final score.

“That’s a tough one to swallow,” Azusa Pacific head coach Jason Surrell said. “My guess is that shot goes in on anybody. It’s basically a lucky shot from 40 or 45 yards out that nobody’s anticipating. It got the right trajectory and the right angle, and it just dropped right in there.”

Concordia was less than 4 minutes from clinching its semifinal berth in regulation, protecting a 1-0 lead despite Azusa Pacific’s overwhelming 18-7 shots advantage through 85 minutes of play. However, Brotherton dove in front of the goal to head in junior defender Katie Rorabaugh’s free kick from outside the right corner of the box to tie the game at 1-1 with 3:58 to play. Rorabaugh’s free kick was one of many quality chances created by the Cougar attack, which put 11 of its 19 shots on goal and also hit the goal frame twice more.

Concordia controlled play for much of the first 30 minutes of the game before Pronovost scored the game’s first goal in the 39th minute. Douglas punched out a Cavaliers corner kick, but Pronovost was waiting for the rebound at the top of the box where she volleyed it right back into the right side of the net to give Concordia a 1-0 lead. A 10th-minute Concordia free kick found the back of the net but was disallowed because the free kick awarded was indirect and the ball never touched another player before hitting the net.

“You’ve got to give them credit,” Surrell said. “The first half, they were all over us and made it very difficult for us to play. They showed a lot in that first half, and we weren’t able to find a lot of rhythm. The second half, I thought we could have had 2 or 3 (goals). We had all kinds of chances and completely outplayed them in the second half.”

Azusa Pacific also had a goal called back, when junior forward Theresa Broad headed in a Rorabaugh free kick in the 60th minute but was caught offside in slipping behind the Concordia defense, the first of numerous second-half chances for the Cougars’ relentless attack. A 62nd-minute corner kick from the right side took an awkward hop before reaching Broad at the back post, and her header bounced wide of the goal.

Shortly thereafter, Rorabaugh moved up top from her spot in the defense, and her impact was immediate. At the 72-minute mark, sophomore defender Kjersti Lang’s clearance from the back was won in the air by Broad, who headed it forward. Rorabaugh cut into the box and laid the ball off to Broad in the center of the box for a low shot from 16 yards out that Concordia goalkeeper Georgie Christensen stopped with a diving save to her left.

In the 78th minute, Rorabaugh just missed the top shelf of the net with a 20-yard free kick that cleared the crossbar by less than a yard. Less than 3 minutes later, senior forward Sarah Yoro found Rorabaugh free up the left side, where she cut back in the left side of the box near the touch line to avoid a defender. She bent a 12-yard right-footed strike past Christensen, but grazed the top of the crossbar for yet another near-miss on the Cougars’ final shot before Brotherton’s 87th-minute equalizer, her 18th of the season and the 49th of a 4-year career in which the Cougars went 77-8-5.

“Our seniors have given this program 100 percent,” Surrell said. I’ve got the utmost respect for this group. They worked hard, their leadership this year has been awesome, and it’s going to be difficult to replace them.”

Concordia had a pair of near-misses itself that could have pushed its advantage to 2-0 in the second half. In the 75th minute, a foul at midfield gave the Cavaliers a free kick. Senior defender Jackie Pronovost quickly set the ball down and sprinted unmarked to the right side where she received the kick. Pronovost launched a 35-yarder that hit the crossbar and provided a foreshadowing of Concordia’s eventual game-winner. Four minutes after that, the Cougar defense tried to draw a Cavaliers counterattack offside, but junior forward Jessica Ramback was even with the last defender and broke free for a 1-on-1 opportunity along the left side with Azusa Pacific’s freshman goalkeeper. Douglas cut off the wide angle to the right, and Ramback’s strike to the near post skipped wide of the goal by about a yard.

While Azusa Pacific suffers its first quarterfinal exit from the national tournament since 2005 after making back-to-back national title game appearances, Concordia advances to the semifinals to take on the tournament’s top-seeded Lindsey Wilson (Ky.).

Due to an awkward seeding process that left the No. 2 seed empty and placed the Cougars, the tournament’s third-highest seed, into the fourth spot to face a fifth-seeded opponent that had a day of rest after Monday’s overtime win over Berry (Ga.).

“You don’t want to harp on it, but it’s unfortunate that we play a team like that in the quarterfinals,” Surrell said. “They’re a Final Four team, and so are we, but one of us isn’t able to get there.”

In past seasons, each of the tournament’s top 4 seeds would play their opening games on the first day of the tournament, then have an extra day of preparation to face their quarterfinal foes. With the No. 2 seed vacant, the reward for 2 of the tournament’s top 4 seeded programs was a game against a highly-ranked and rested opponent.

“The fact that the seniors had to be put in that spot in their last go, to play a team that hasn’t lost all year that’s ranked third in the nation – to play them in the quarterfinals is too bad,” Surrell said. “It’s a shame that they’ve done it this way. They had the opportunity to make it right, and that’s the frustrating part – they didn’t.”

Azusa Pacific falls 1 win short of posting its third straight 20-win campaign, ending the 2008 season with a 19-3 overall mark, while Concordia advances with its unbeaten record intact at 22-0-1.