AZUSA, Calif. -- Senior midfielder Kelsey Walker made her final regular-season home game a memorable one, posting the first 2-goal game of her career with an assist to lead the NAIA’s No. 3-ranked Azusa Pacific to a 3-1 win in its regular-season finale Tuesday afternoon at the Cougar Soccer Complex.
The Cougars scored back-to-back goals in the opening minutes of the second half following a scoreless first half of play. Walker put consecutive shots towards goal following a corner kick in the opening minute of the second half, and the second rebound deflected off a defender standing in the goal to the feet of freshman defender Allie Stone, who put the ball back into the net from 3 yards in front of the goal. The Cougars quickly regained possession, and Walker scored from well outside the right half of the box on a 28-yard strike over Fresno Pacific goalkeeper Catherine Michaelis to turn a scoreless battle into a 2-0 lead just 2:22 into the second half.
“I planned on turning and shooting because I knew we just needed to get shots on goal,” Walker said. “We wanted to come out hard in the second half because the first half wasn’t up to the level we wanted.”
The goal turned out to be the game-winner, Walker’s second of the year, and she has either scored or assisted game-winning goals 6 times over the past 2 seasons.
“I think there’s something to be said about her ability to stay with it and stay motivated despite not starting for a few years, and her desire was always there,” Cougar head coach Jason Surrell said. “I’m proud of her for fighting through that with the right attitude. She’s put it all together, with the intensity, work rate, understanding the game, and I think she’s deserving of scoring a couple of goals today because of how she’s been such a big key for us as a leader.”
When Fresno Pacific’s Sara Vega pulled the Sunbirds to within 2-1 in the 83rd minute with an unassisted 7-yard goal from in front of the net, Walker provided the answer once more. The rebound from junior midfielder Brittany Flanagan’s curling 22-yard shot from the left side, tipped into the crossbar by Michaelis, was headed back into the goal by Walker to push the margin back to 2 goals and seal the victory with just 2:30 to play in regulation.
“Coach has been telling us the last couple of games that our level won’t cut it if our ultimate goal is a national championship,” Walker said. “We knew that, but sometimes we’ve got to find it within ourselves. That’s what we decided to do. Our goal is to keep Coach quiet, and we did that in the second half.”
The win gives Azusa Pacific a 13-1-2 overall record with an 8-1-1 GSAC mark, currently good enough for the GSAC lead. However, the Cougars’ conference bye falls on the final weekend of GSAC play while The Master’s, currently 8-1 in league play, visits Biola Saturday afternoon in La Mirada.
“We know that all we can control is ourselves,” Walker said. “We’re confident that whatever happens, we still have to keep working hard, doing our best and playing together.”
If The Master’s beats Biola Saturday, it will claim the school’s first GSAC championship in a women’s sport, but a tie or loss to the host Eagles would extend Azusa Pacific’s GSAC regular-season championships streak to 6 years and give the Cougars home-field advantage throughout the upcoming GSAC postseason tournament.
“You set out at the beginning of the year to want to win that conference championship, but at the same time, with 1 loss on the season, it wouldn’t really bother me if we don’t get it,” Surrell said. “My focus is always the national tournament – how do we get there and what route we’re going to take, and we’ve put ourselves in a good spot. Whether we win (the GSAC) or not, I’m not concerned. My concern is getting us better and getting us to where we need to be to make a run at it.”
Fresno Pacific generated what was perhaps its best scoring chance of the game within a minute of the opening whistle, with Jessica Pereschica beating a scrambling Cougar defense into the left side of the box for an 8-yard touch to the near post that was saved by sophomore goalkeeper Michelle Wieland. The Sunbirds got another quality chance 2 minutes later with Mariah Alvidrez’s strike that missed wide of the right post from the top of the box, but Fresno Pacific didn’t get off another shot until the 63rd minute.
Azusa Pacific fired 11 shots in the opening half but didn’t convert until the second half, with the 3 post-halftime scores giving the Cougars 25 second-half goals on the season compared to 10 in the first half of contests. A total of 16 shots flew at the Sunbirds in the second half, pushing Azusa Pacific’s total shots margin for the game to 27-4. The Cougars generated 5 corner kicks without conceding any, and they were also whistled offside 3 different times.
“Our focus during halftime was that our level wasn’t good enough to get it done if we want to go far in the postseason,” Surrell said. “We talked about the juniors and the seniors, and the reason that I try to get them going is because they’re the ones that have to lead by example. That’s really what halftime was about – trying to get where we think we need to be to do something with our season.”
Walker and fellow Cougar seniors Jennie Cress and Delina Papa were honored prior to starting their last home game of the regular season, but Cress suffered a knee injury that took her out of the game while pursuing a loose ball near the sideline in front of the Azusa Pacific bench just over 4 minutes into the contest.
“Our goal for the second half was to go out and play for Jennie, because we knew she wanted it more than any of us,” Walker said. “We got 2 goals really fast, and we wanted to get 1 more. We worked as a team to put the first half behind us and came out with a different intensity in the second half.”
Walker fired a game- and career-high 9 shots, putting 6 on goal, and Flanagan had 5 shots with an assist of the Cougars’ final score, her fifth assist of the year. Stone’s score made her the ninth Azusa Pacific player to score 2 or more goals this season.
The Cougars have secured home-field advantage for their GSAC Tournament opener, which will be played on Tuesday, Nov. 2, at the Cougar Soccer Complex, as well as a potential GSAC Tournament semifinal matchup on Friday, Nov. 5. Full GSAC Tournament information will be announced by the conference office following the conclusion of Saturday’s regular-season action.