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Sunshine Surprise

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Photo by Chris Baker
Heidi Witschi and Natalie Sun celebrate after the Cougars' first goal.

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November 30, 2011
Chris Baker
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DECATUR, Ala.-- With a spot on the line against the 3-time defending champs in the NAIA semifinals, the 2-seeded Azusa Pacific Cougars buried No. 7 Mobile (Ala.) 4-0 in their most complete match of the season.

The Cougars (15-2-2), playing in their seventh straight NAIA quarterfinal, got two first half goals from Natalie Sun before registering two more goals in the second half for their highest scoring output of the season. Azusa Pacific put seven of its 13 shots on goal and matched a program single-season record with its 15th shutout. The four goal win was the teams largest margin of victory at the NAIA tournament final site since 2002, and the biggest in the quarterfinals since 2001.

“We looked strong from start to finish,” said Head Coach Jason Surrell. “Conditions were better today and had good team defending again. We were solid and helped when we needed to.”

To say the defense was solid is a major understatement. Mobile came into today’s contest having averaged 15.26 shots and 2.91 goals per game, but the Cougars scheme overwhelmed them.

“We had a game plan going in. We knew their forwards were really good in the air so we just kept that in mind and worked together as a team,” said sophomore defender Danielle Ross. “Our goal every game is to get a shutout and give up as few shots on goal as possible.”

And the Cougars did that and then some, holding the Lady Rams without a single shot in the entire match. That's correct, the Cougars didn't give Mobile a single opportunity for the entirety of the contest.

Azusa Pacific on the other hand found chances all day.

In the 6th minute Amanda Hardy nearly scored off a set piece, but the ball traveled wide of the goal. Then in the 10th Sun had a great look in the middle of the box, but she sailed it over the bar. But two minutes later Sun opened the scoring after Heidi Witschi found her in the middle. Sun went left post past a diving Lorna Brownlie to give Azusa Pacific a 1-0 lead.

The Cougars, who controlled the ball all day, got another goal from Sun in the 20th minute after Amanda Hardy dropped it off to her on the left side of the box. Sun finished far post for her first two-goal game of the year.

In all Azusa Pacific recorded seven shots (three on frame) in the opening half. But even with the advantage, a notoriously dangerous two goal lead, the Cougars kept pressing.

Six minutes into the second half Witschi received a ball from Sun deep in the box and quickly poked it into the net to give the team its largest lead of the tournament at 3-0.

“Coach talked about needing a killer instinct,” said Witschi. “Everyone came out with a lot of desire and everyone was on board.”

And the Cougars continued to show their killer instinct. After back-to-back missed shots by Daniella Perez (one high and one saved) the sophomore crossed it to Emily Wood along the left end line. Wood then found Molly Lavin on the far side who then placed it into the back of the net before the keeper could rotate. The goal was Lavin’s sixth of the year and all-but sealed the match as Azusa Pacific led 4-0.

The Cougars registered six shots in the final 45 minutes and continued to attack until the final whistle as Shannon Hardy had her shot saved in the 88th minute. But the final result was already secure as Azusa Pacific clinched a rematch of last season’s NAIA semifinal.

The Cougars' 15 shutouts this season match the program's 14-year old record, which was coincidentally set the same year Azusa Pacific won it all (1998). The Cougars have only allowed six goals in 20 contests this season (single-season program record is seven) and their 0.30 goal against average also ranks No. 1 in the NAIA.

One of those goals came against Lee as Azusa Pacific had a small piece of vengeance earlier this year when they defeated the Lady Flames 2-1 in their second match of the season.

But even with that win as their last memory of Lee, the team still can't shake last year's loss.

“There are a lot of emotions. I'm reminiscing from last year where we were in the same spot,” said Witschi. “It’s going to need to be a team effort. Everyone’s going to have to give everything they’ve got.”

In the semifinals of the 2010 championship Lee scored an early goal and held on to win 1-0 to end the Cougars' season on the way to the program's third straight championship

“They’re a good team. You don’t win three straight if you’re not,” said Surrell. “We’re confident in what we can do, but we’ll just have to see what happens.”

The game is scheduled to start at 4 p.m. (CST) with a trip to the title game on the line.