AZUSA, Calif. -- Apparently revenge never gets old for Azusa Pacific, which spent the regular season avenging each of its 2009 losses while claiming its sixth consecutive Golden State Athletic Conference regular-season title. The motivation worked so well, the NAIA’s No. 3-ranked Cougars used it again in the conference tournament championship game, posting an impressive 3-0 win Friday afternoon over the No. 9-ranked California Baptist squad that was responsible for its lone 2010 defeat.
Friday’s GSAC championship game was more than an opportunity for Azusa Pacific to defend its regular-season crown, and it was more than a battle for the conference’s automatic bid into the 32-team NAIA Women’s Soccer National Championship field. This one was personal, and it marked the fifth time this year the Cougars had the revenge factor working in their favor.
A pair of wins in mid-September at the Lee (Tenn.) University Lady Flames Classic avenged last year’s non-conference defeats to William Carey (Miss.) and Lee, and the Cougars were overtime winners Oct. 2 over Point Loma Nazarene, which ended Azusa Pacific’s 2009 campaign in the NAIA semifinals on a penalty shootout. The Oct. 16 overtime defeat at California Baptist came 4 days ahead of a 2-0 win over Westmont, adding the Lancers to the list after the Cougars avenged their 2009 double-overtime loss to Westmont.
“I was hoping we would get to play California Baptist, just like how I felt last year after Point Loma,” said sophomore All-GSAC forward Natalie Sun, who was in on all 3 Azusa Pacific scores with 2 goals and an assist. “Right after we lost that game, I couldn’t wait to play them again. It definitely gets me more excited to play, and I think we want it a lot more when we have something to prove.”
It took Azusa Pacific less than a minute to start the 90-minute payback. Sun, the conference’s season assists leader, registered her 11th assist of the year when she set up sophomore forward Heidi Witschi for a score in the opening minute of the game, and she scored the next 2 goals on her own for the final 3-goal margin.
“For us, it’s been the same thing all year – we want to continue to get better and continue to work,” Cougar head coach Jason Surrell said. “I thought our start-to-finish effort was really good today. We possessed the ball really well at times, and we were all on the same page tactically. Our knowledge and understanding of what each other was doing was really good.”
The first goal was set up by Sun’s cross to Witschi inside the box near the right post. Witschi dribbled left past California Baptist goalkeeper Katie Rumfola and tapped it into the empty net for the opening score just 54 seconds into the contest.
“Our starts to games this year haven’t been good, so we wanted to come out with the kind of effort we had today,” Surrell said. “It always helps to score early, but it’s a long game after that. You have to keep playing and almost act like it didn’t go.”
The Lancers’ 2 best chances came midway through the first half, the first in the 23rd minute when All-GSAC midfielder Fabiola Zanella da Silva led Amanda Lammers towards the top right side of the box. Lammers slipped past the Cougar defender, but junior goalkeeper Alexa Douglas read the play perfectly and charged off her line with a well-timed slide that prevented a shot attempt and knocked the ball out of danger. In the 29th minute, da Silva got an open look for herself a few yards inside the box, but she knocked the attempt just over the crossbar.
“They’re a good team, and they had us on our heels at times,” Surrell said. “That’s going to happen any time you play high-level competition, but I thought the effort we got today was where we needed to be.”
Sun added to the Cougars’ 1-0 lead with less than 5 minutes remaining until halftime, battling with a defender on her left hip on a physical run into the box before finishing a 16-yard strike that Rumfola got a glove on but couldn’t push off line. Sun’s shot bounced once in front of the goal before continuing into the net, sending the Cougars into halftime with a 2-0 lead. Sun rounded out the scoring in the 66th minute, finishing off a scramble in front of the California Baptist net with a finish inside the right post for her second goal of the game and a 3-0 Azusa Pacific lead.
Both teams finished with 8 shots in the game, 4 for each team in each half, but the Cougars put 6 shots on goal against just 1 for the Lancers. Douglas made the save on Kitra Walters’ long 39th-minute strike, and the Cougar defense posted its ninth shutout of the year. It was the fifth shutout in the past 6 games for Azusa Pacific, which includes 3 straight cleansheets in GSAC Tournament play.
Friday’s win secured the GSAC’s automatic bid for Azusa Pacific into the 32-team NAIA Women’s Soccer National Championship, which begins with opening round contests at campus sites on Saturday, Nov. 20. California Baptist will likely receive one of the 7 at-large bids available.
“We aren’t going to get ahead of ourselves,” Surrell said. “We’ll continue to work and try to fine-tune the things we still need to improve on. Right now we’re focused on Nov. 20, and if we win that, we’ll go to Alabama and concentrate on the next week.”
The win also gave Azusa Pacific its ninth tournament championship at the regional or conference level since 1998, and the Cougars have won 6 of the past 7 national qualifying tournaments.
Azusa Pacific will enter the national tournament with a 16-1-2 record, while California Baptist drops to 13-5-2 entering the next round of postseason competition. The full 32-team field and Opening Round matchups will be announced by the NAIA national office on Sunday, Nov. 14, at www.naia.org.