DECATUR, Ala. -- Azusa Pacific rallied twice from a goal down and overcame a national tournament-record 13 offsides before senior midfielder Kelsey Walker scored the game-winner in the 83rd minute to lift the No. 3-seeded Cougars to a 3-2 win over No. 14-seeded Oklahoma City in the second round of the 2010 NAIA Women’s Soccer National Championship.
Freshman forward Laura Feehs scored Azusa Pacific’s first 2 goals, her team-high 12th and 13th goals of the season, and both answered go-ahead goals for Oklahoma City, which drew Azusa Pacific offsides 10 times in the first half alone. The Cougars’ first-half offsides total tied one of the oldest marks on the NAIA Tournament record books, with Seattle last registering double-digits in offsides with 10 in 1993.
“It’s always a good day as long as you’re moving on,” Cougar head coach Jason Surrell said. “At this tournament, there are a lot of games in a short period of time. If you can live to the next day, then you’ve done something right, regardless of how ugly it might be.”
With rain showers throughout the day soaking the game field at Decatur’s Jack Allen Recreation Complex during the first 3 games of second-round action, Azusa Pacific took an aggressive, attack-minded approach despite the challenging conditions created by the muddy turf. The Cougars matched Oklahoma City’s 3-shot first-half total and registered a 10-1 shots advantage after halftime for a total 13-4 shooting margin for the game.
“Unfortunately, the conditions change everything,” Surrell said. “Playing in this is something we haven’t done all year. To have a successful season and come back here and have to play in this is difficult. There’s not much tactically that you can do, other than try to serve the ball long, because they’re such bad conditions.”
The relentless pressure took its toll on the Oklahoma City defense, as Walker’s unassisted game-winner was truly the product of an extended attack that started with junior midfielder Brittany Flanagan winning possession in an attacking midfield position.
Flanagan got the ball ahead to the Cougar forwards in the box, where sophomores Heidi Witschi and Natalie Sun each got touches on the ball near the left post that were deflected away by Oklahoma City defenders. However, the last touch saw the ball skip away from the crowd and settle in the mud 9 yards out along the right side. Walker won a footrace with Witschi to the wide-open chance, capitalizing with a right-footed strike before the goalkeeper could get back into position.
The Cougars’ 4-game postseason shutout streak was quickly broken when sophomore defender Rachael Harding lost her footing in the mud while tracking back on an Oklahoma City attack. Malin Andersson took advantage of the slip, taking the ball into the right corner of the box and lifting a shot over junior goalkeeper Alexa Douglas for the go-ahead goal just past the 16-minute mark.
Flanagan led Feehs into the box for the first equalizing score in the 32nd minute. Feehs’ run directly at the defense into the left side of the box finished with a low shot tucked just inside the far post to tie the game at 1-1.
Oklahoma City controlled play coming out of the halftime break, with the exception of a Feehs breakaway in the 64th minute. Feehs again went to the far post, but this time Oklahoma City goalkeeper Brittany Tibbs was able to make the save and direct the ball towards the top of the box. Flanagan struck the rebound right back to the goal, where Tibbs collected another save.
The ensuing counter-attack resulted in another goal for the Stars, who took a 2-1 lead at 64:49 on Blerta Rashica’s unassisted score. Barely a minute later, Rashica was headed into the box with the Cougar defense behind her, but Douglas charged out to make a sliding stop before Rashica could try a shot that could have pushed the lead to 3-1. Instead, Azusa Pacific pushed the ball up the field, and freshman Daniella Perez was able to lead Sun up the right sideline for a familiar sequence. Sun crossed the ball from the touch line to the far post, where Feehs was positioned for a header that redirected the ball back inside the right post to tie the game again at 2-2 in the 68th minute.
“Because of the field conditions, we couldn’t really build from the back into the midfield and up front, so we had to play a little more direct,” Surrell said. “We know what we want to do when we get it in certain spots, so we were at least familiar in some of the patterns that we ran, but the field just didn’t give us much of a chance to get into our game.”
That second goal sparked the Cougars’ attack for the next 15 minutes leading up to Walker’s game-winner. Sun fired a shot from the top of the box in the 72nd minute that deflected off a defender and created a tricky save for Tibbs, and a Witschi cross in the 74th minute nearly resulted in a hat trick for Feehs although a Stars defender got a foot in to knock it away from Feehs at the back post for an Azusa Pacific corner kick.
In the 79th minute, Sun crossed from the right side again to Feehs, who cut into the box and over-ran the angle for a shot. Instead, she passed it back to sophomore midfielder Markie Gleason, who stood unmarked at the top of the box but sent an open shot just wide to the left of the goal.
“I think our fitness played a big role in the game,” Surrell said. “It kept our players fresh and allowed us to rotate some players through in the second half. We couldn’t even kick the ball up the field early on because it was just getting stuck in the mud, so it was important to keep a high level of energy throughout the game.”
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 18-1-2 on the season and advances into the NAIA quarterfinals for the sixth consecutive season. Oklahoma City finishes the year with a 19-3-2 record and was playing beyond the opening round of the national tournament for the first time since 2001.
The Cougars will face a familiar opponent in Wednesday’s 7 p.m. quarterfinal, taking on the winner of Tuesday night’s matchup between Golden State Athletic Conference rivals California Baptist University and The Master’s College.