DECATUR, Ala. -- Behind senior midfielder Kelsey Walker’s second consecutive game-winning goal, Azusa Pacific handed Golden State Athletic Conference rival California Baptist a 3-0 defeat for the second time this postseason, advancing into the NAIA semifinals with Thursday’s quarterfinal victory.
Walker scored midway through the first half to give the No. 3-seeded Cougars a 1-0 lead, and junior midfielder Brittany Flanaganand sophomore Jacqueline Conforto added insurance goals in a 5-minute span midway through the second half to put the game away. The No. 11-seeded Lancers managed just 4 total shots, including just 1 in the second half, as the Cougar defense turned up the pressure to close out its fifth shutout in 6 postseason games.
“My emotions are through the roof right now,” Walker said. “I can’t describe how much it means to me, especially because I can’t emphasize enough that I was able to do this for the team. That’s what we love about our team – you never know who it’s going to be, and we’re happy for anyone that gets it. We couldn’t be where we are right now without every single person on this team.”
In the 23rd minute, Flanagan drilled a free kick to the back post, and Walker was there to finish it from 7 yards out. The goal was just one of several quality scoring opportunities that could have given Azusa Pacific a sizable halftime advantage. Sophomore forward Heidi Witschi hit the crossbar at the 17-minute mark, and another Flanagan free kick in the 24th minute barely missed curling into the upper right corner from 28 yards out. A 35th-minute corner kick led to sophomore midfielder Molly Lavin’s header in the box that missed the right post by about a yard.
“Kelsey has put in her time in this program and worked extremely hard, and she’s having as good of a senior year as anybody,” Surrell said. “She has scored some key goals for us in big moments, and apart from what she’s done on the field I think she’s probably a bigger asset off the field. She’s really taken the role of captain and leader and done a pretty remarkable job with it.”
The Cougars started the second half with the same opportunistic mindset. Less than 5 minutes into the second half, Walker initiated an attack by leading sophomore Natalie Sun up the right sideline. Sun crossed up her defender with a series of touches that gave her an open cross from the right side to freshman forward Laura Feehs, who was unable to adjust her near-post run to connect with Sun’s back-post cross.
Despite the miscommunication, the pair was on the same page in the 59th minute, when Sun attacked the middle of California Baptist’s defense to open up space before laying the ball off to the left for Feehs, who beat her defender and knocked a left-footed first touch inside the far post. However, Feehs was whistled offside, 1 of 3 offsides called against the Cougars, who have been called for an NAIA Tournament-record 20 offsides through its first 3 games of national tournament play.
“We have embraced the theme this week that whoever adapts the best and works hardest is going to win this tournament,” Walker said. “The conditions haven’t been great, but we have tried to have a good attitude, we know we have a lot of team depth, and we know that we need to have the hardest-working team in this tournament.”
In the 70th minute, Sun was fouled again while pushing the attack directly towards the heart of the Lancer defense, and Flanagan lifted the ensuing 30-yard free kick over the outstretched right hand of California Baptist goalkeeper Rosie Nakata to push the lead to 2-0 with 20 minutes to play. Five minutes later, sophomore forward Jacqueline Conforto took a pass along the left side near midfield from sophomore forward Shannon Righetti. Conforto went directly at the retreating Lancer defender, dribbling directly to the top of the box before unleashing a beautiful 18-yard rocket inside the far post to give the Cougars a 3-goal advantage with just over 15 minutes remaining in regulation.
“I’ve never had the level of depth before at Azusa Pacific that we have this year,” said Surrell, who was able to send 10 players into the game off the bench to help rest starters who will take the field for the semifinals less than 24 hours after the conclusion of Thursday’s quarterfinal. “It was great tonight to get the lead and be able to rest some players while keeping the level of play where it was. Jacqueline was a great example of that depth tonight, because she hasn’t been starting for most of the year but she still had a huge finishing goal that was great for her and for the team.”
Azusa Pacific finished with a 14-4 shooting margin, and the Cougars earned 5 corner kicks without conceding any to the Lancers, who did not place a shot on goal. The closest California Baptist came to testing sophomore goalkeeper Michelle Wieland was when Wieland had to control a save that was spinning away from her with a Lancer attacker making a run directly at her in the box. Wieland was able to cover it, and she also made a first-half stop to emerge with her seventh shutout of the year.
Azusa Pacific has now won 9 straight since suffering a 2-1 overtime defeat at California Baptist in the teams’ Oct. 16 regular-season meeting, and the stretch includes a pair of 3-0 wins over the Lancers in postseason play to avenge the Cougars’ only 2010 defeat.
“We knew that California Baptist was coming in with the revenge factor this time, but we’ll take anything we can find to motivate us,” Walker said. “To come out here and beat someone from our conference made this a good test.”
Up next for Azusa Pacific is a semifinals matchup with another familiar opponent in No. 2-seeded Lee (Tenn.). The teams have met in the regular season for 6 straight years, but Friday’s semifinals matchup will be the first postseason meeting between the programs.