DECATUR, Ala. -- Conceding an early goal is no reason to panic, and when No. 2-seeded Lee (Tenn.) scored in the first 2 minutes of Friday’s NAIA semifinal against No. 3-seeded Azusa Pacific, most figured that Samantha Hare’s early strike was simply the first in what was sure to be a handful of goals between 2 of the NAIA’s top women’s soccer programs.
Instead, the Lee defense used a spirited effort to hold off an Azusa Pacific offense that had hit its stride in the postseason by scoring 3 goals in 5 of its 6 conference and national tournament games. Every Cougar attack was turned away, some by a matter of inches, and the NAIA’s 2-time defending national champion Flames held on for a 1-0 win to move into Saturday’s finals against unseeded Hastings (Neb.).
“You’re not going to dominate and control a game against a team like Lee, but I surely felt, especially in the second half, that we had a lot more of the ball and had our chances,” Cougar head coach Jason Surrell said. “Give Lee credit – they kept us out of the net. You’ve got to hand it to them for making it tough for us tonight.”
Since 2006, the only programs to play in multiple NAIA championship games have been Azusa Pacific and Lee, and the programs have met annually in the regular season for 6 straight seasons. The Cougars had won 4 of those 6 meetings, including a 2-1 win in Cleveland, Tenn., this year, but Lee’s standout defensive performance Friday night lifted the Flames to victory in the first-ever postseason meeting between the programs.
“I’m surprised they kept us out of the net, and you have to give them credit for that,” Surrell said. “The first time we played, it could have been a score of 5-4 with as many chances as we were creating. Even though that was early in the season, I’m still surprised that tonight we didn’t finish anything.”
Lee’s shutout certainly didn’t come without its nervous moments or plentiful scoring chances for Azusa Pacific, and barely 5 minutes after the game’s first goal, the Cougars thought they had it tied when freshman forward Laura Feehs got past a defender to knock in the rebound of a saved shot on goal. Feehs, however, was whistled offsides, erasing a goal she scored due to offsides for the second time in the tournament. Later in the first half, senior midfielder Kelsey Walker put a good touch on an 11-yard shot that Lee goalkeeper Kristi Koudelka was able to punch over the bar.
“It’s those little things that have got to go your way, and they just didn’t tonight,” Surrell said. “That shot was clearly going in, and Koudelka just threw her hand out and she just got enough of it to deflect it over.”
After halftime, Lee put another early scare into Azusa Pacific, when Jamie Achten fired a shot from the right side of the box that hit underneath the crossbar and bounced down in front of the goal line, a near-miss that kept the Cougars within a goal. Achten’s crossbar shot was Lee’s only shot of the second half, although Azusa Pacific’s 7-1 shots margin after halftime didn’t fully represent how much the Cougars controlled possession in search of the equalizer.
“Their goal was just a ball that popped out, and Hare happened to be in a great spot and hit a great shot,” Surrell said. “We weren’t marked up tight enough, and she got a shot off from 18-20 yards out, but other than that we didn’t give up a ton of chances. To do what we did against their forwards made me proud of the defense for doing a great job.”
From that point on, Azusa Pacific featured a relentless attack that kept the pressure on a Lee defense that had showed signs of tiring late in the first half. The Cougars’ starting forward trio of Feehs and sophomores Natalie Sun and Heidi Witschi were all replaced for a few minutes at the end of the first half, and they returned together just over 10 minutes into the second half after Lee had withstood the opening push after halftime.
At the 62-minute mark, junior Brittany Flanagan’s 22-yard strike was tipped just wide of the goal for a corner kick, and Sun got a touch within the 6-yard box in front of the goal before Koudelka was able to cover it up and end the scoring threat. Less than 10 minutes later, Witschi cut diagonally across the midfield from left to right and put a 19-yard right-footed strike into the bottom side of the crossbar. Koudelka stumbled after the rebound but was unable to track it down for several seconds before a Lee defender reached it to take it out of the box and away from danger.
Perhaps the last quality chance for the Cougars came with a minute and 40 seconds remaining, when Sun launched a throw-in from the left side into the box. Feehs collected it at the edge of the box and got a clean look but sent the Cougars’ final shot of the game wide past the far post.
“What stood out to me about this year’s team was its resiliency,” Surrell said. “This group just continued to play and fight, and I never saw any panic or worry on their face. They just liked to play and compete together. Their closeness as a group has been remarkable, and you have to hand that to the seniors for how they brought this team together into a close-knit group.”
Koudelka finished with 5 saves, and Azusa Pacific goalkeeper Alexa Douglas helped keep the game within reach with 3 first-half saves.
Azusa Pacific finishes the year at 19-2-2 overall, while Lee moves on to the title game with a 21-2-1 mark. The Cougars’ 2010 semifinals appearance marked the program’s ninth trip to the NAIA semifinals, and it was the fourth time in the past 5 years that Azusa Pacific has been in the final 4.