Last year, Cougar Athletics counted down the last 30 days of summer with the Cougar Countdown blog series, which contained 30 items of interest to Cougar fans leading into the 2012-13 school year. For the summer of 2013, Cougar Athletics takes a look back with a ranking of Azusa Pacific’s top 13 teams of all-time, which was compiled by the office of Sports Information with input from current and past coaches and administrators. The top 13 teams in Cougar Athletics history will be revealed one at a time each Thursday throughout the summer, culminating with the No. 1 team on August 22.
MAY 30 -- No. 13: 2000 Softball
JUNE 6 -- No. 12: 2005 Men’s Tennis
JUNE 13 -- No. 11: 1985 Football
JUNE 20 -- No. 10: 1998 Men’s Basketball
JUNE 27 -- No. 9: 1983 Track & Field
JULY 4 -- No. 8: 2011 Women’s Basketball
JULY 11 -- No. 7: 1980 Volleyball
JULY 18 -- No. 6: 2007 Baseball
JULY 25 -- No. 5: 2007 Men’s Soccer
AUGUST 1 -- No. 4: 2000-01 Men’s Basketball
AUGUST 8 -- No. 3: 2003 Track & Field
AUGUST 15 -- No. 2: 1998 Football
No. 1: 1998 Azusa Pacific Women’s Soccer
Final NAIA ranking: 2nd
NAIA National Champions
Before her 1998 senior season Azusa Pacific defender Nicole Restivo answered a challenge from then women’s soccer head coach Christian Johnson (CJ) to write on a note card her idea of what a perfect season would be. Restivo hesitantly jotted down four things, each of which seemed more and more absurd as she penned her dream season. The note card read: Win the Golden State Athletic Conference championship. Go to the NAIA national tournament. Win a national championship. Go undefeated.
As she wrote down her goals she became increasingly embarrassed about how corny and unrealistic she sounded, largely because prior to that year not a single one of those aspirations had been met by a Cougar soccer team.
“When I wrote that it was 100 percent crazy. We knew we could be a good team, but I don’t think any one of us realistically expected to accomplish all of those goals. We hadn’t even been to a tournament, so to think that we could even win it... it just doesn’t happen like that. You don’t win a championship at your first tournament, and you don’t go out there and win all of your games,” said Restivo.
But in a dream season with a fairy tale ending Azusa Pacific went out and accomplished the impossible; winning the program’s lone NAIA national championship after claiming the team’s first GSAC title in an undefeated season in which the Cougars made their first trip to the national tournament. Restivo’s fantasy came true. Azusa Pacific overcame the disappointment of nine consecutive tournament misses to put together one of the most impressive campaigns in school history.
But despite a season for the ages, which included 19 GSAC records, and the lone unblemished mark for any team sport in Cougar history, when you ask any of that season’s player or coaches about that year they don’t reminisce about the banner or wins, but rather about the family atmosphere, road trips, and relationships. For those 16 players that’s what mattered to them above all, and maybe that was the key for handling the building pressure of a season where they put up W’s at an unprecedented clip.
“That small team was super close. Like in many sports, success comes when you get along on and off the field. We were all so tight, and even to this day we still are. It’s not uncommon for 12 of the 16 of us to get together with all of our kids whenever someone comes to town. It was a really unique thing about that team,” said Restivo, who took on a unique role as one of the team’s two seniors.
“They called me mom and still do. I was the oldest, so I was the mother hen. We were such a family. We would march out holding hands before every game and prayed before the cross at the field. We played for each other. There was never any animosity about who was getting playing time or who was scoring goals. And we were all goofballs. Of all of the teams I’ve been on I’ve never been part of one where we just wanted to hang out that much. For that season our whole life was that team. We never wanted it to end.”
The family feel permeated every aspect of the Cougars’ soccer season. From the coaches to the fans to the parents. It wasn’t uncommon for the moms and dads to travel with the team, bringing post-game snacks like they were playing in a 12-under AYSO league, launching a tradition that still stands to this day.
“Our parents would bring snacks and Gatorade...it was almost embarrassing. But it just shows what that year was like. We were all in it together,” said Restivo.
Azusa Pacific’s two coaches, Johnson and current head coach Jason Surrell, were greener than the grass they practiced on, and their youth helped cultivate the chemistry for a team that was full of athletes just a few years younger than them. The small age gap could have presented a huge hurdle, but the two used it perfectly to create a fun, but competitive environment.
“I’m so amazed and grateful for Jason and CJ. We had the best coaches and were so lucky. They complemented each other perfectly. They played a huge role in it for us. It was the perfect storm because without them I’m not sure we would have come close to accomplishing what we did. It couldn’t have been better if I would have dreamt it up.” said junior MF Janay Duran.
The coach-player chemistry was no more evident than when Azusa Pacific won the first GSAC title in school history. Once the clock hit all zeroes in a 3-0 victory over Vanguard (then Southern California College) the girls dog piled their second-year coach, snapping one of his ribs in the process. But instead of crying, he laughed. The postgame celebration epitomized what the Cougars were about that year: winning and fun.
“When we dog piled him and broke his rib he didn’t complain. He was in the moment and so excited that we won the league championship because we worked so hard for that. He was supposed to do the worm at our ceremony, but we let him off the hook,” said Duran.
But no matter how tight a team is, if it doesn’t have talent it won’t go very far. Luckily for that 16-player team the Cougars fielded one of the most impressive lineups the program has ever seen.
That season’s squad featured two Azusa Pacific Hall of Famers in Kendra Payne and Jennifer Babel, and included four first-team NAIA All-Americans. Six of the Cougars were honored as members of the All-GSAC team, and five rank inside the top-16 all-time goal scorers in program history. Azusa Pacific’s perfect blend of talent and chemistry was so strong that to this day Johnson tries to recreate the formula he had with those ’98 Cougars.
“When I’m recruiting, I’m looking for players that are comparable to them. There were several players that had Division I opportunities. It was very unique as far as how talented they were and to all be on the same team. I constantly think about that year, and I look for that in players that I recruit,” said Johnson, who headed two Division II programs before taking over as head coach for Division I Cal State Bakersfield. “I look at what they were able to accomplish in training and I’m trying to get all of my teams to replicate that consistency, athleticism, and approach.”
Highlighting that group is Payne, whose 90 career goals and 52 assists are each Cougar records. Payne, a sophomore in ’98, found the back of the net 21 times while dishing out 14 assists during the Cougars’ championship season.
“Kendra is by far the most athletic human I’ve ever met. But the coolest part is that she’s the most humble person I know. She always has fun when she’s on the field and that’s something I love. If I wanted my kids to turn into any athlete I’d want them to be like her. She had the perfect mix of athleticism, competitiveness, and humility. She scored a goal barefoot in the playoffs; that’s her in a nutshell,” said Restivo.
Babel was the opposite. Off the field her fun-loving personality made her one of the team’s most popular players, but on the field her intensity made her one of the most feared.
“The thing about playing with her is that she turns it on. She’s a total goofball off the field, but come game time you don’t want to mess with her. She commanded the field,” said Restivo about Babel, who served as her maid of honor.
Babel was named the GSAC Player of the Year, and was joined by Duran, Payne, Andrea Alfiler, Rachel Messick, and Missy Myers on the all-GSAC team. Myers paced the Cougars’ potent offense, which finished No. 2 in the NAIA in goals (119), with 23 scores and four hat tricks, while Alfiler, Duran, and Messick combined for 27 goals and 33 assists.
Rachel Yanos tabbed a school-record 15 shutouts during her junior season, limiting opponents to just 12 goals (also a Cougar record) in a season that Azusa Pacific registered the NAIA’s second stingiest defense at a 0.47 goals-against-average.
Stockpiled with talent the Cougars were set to embark on what looked like could be there most successful season, eyeing a conference title and tournament appearance during the preseason. And there was a little added motivation after how the 1997 season ended.
If there was one driving force for the 1998 season it was Westmont. The Warriors were the only team to ever win a GSAC championship, capturing each of the first five league titles, and were the only conference program to advance to the national tournament. They were also Azusa Pacific’s biggest target. The year before it was Westmont that ended the Cougars’ season, defeating Azusa Pacific 3-1 in the NAIA regional for the third time in 1997.
“In 1997 we had six losses, three to NCAA division II schools and three to Westmont. When we started training for the 1998 season, Westmont was on everyone’s mind. It was constantly talked about. They were the team we wanted to take down,” said Johnson.
The Cougars were so motivated by their season-ending loss to the Warriors, which kept Azusa Pacific out of the NAIA national tournament for the ninth consecutive year, that they took on their own offseason training regimen.
“At the end of the 1997 season, as soon as it finished, it lit a fire inside of us. From that point on we put in so many extra hours. We practiced on our own. Every practice from that point on we left blood, sweat and tears on the field. Practice got so intense that we would normally rip each other’s shirts. That’s how intense it was for us,” said Duran.
And the training more than served its purpose as the Cougars assembled the most dominant season in school history. That year Azusa Pacific broke 19 GSAC records en route to its first conference championship. The Cougars outscored their opponents 119-12 and posted 15 shutouts, a mark that hasn’t been matched since.
Offensively the Cougars averaged 4.76 goals per game, highest in program history. All but seven matches were decided by two goals or more as Azusa Pacific made blowouts a routine. In fact the Cougars were so dominating that they averaged more goals per game than they allowed shots on goal (3.36), meaning they could have played the entire season without a keeper and still held a 119-84 scoring advantage over the course of the year.
They scored 10 or more goals four different times, and set the program’s scoring margin record in a 15-0 shellacking of Hope International.
“I’ve never been part of a team that was that dominant. It didn’t matter who was on the field, or who was starting. The level of play never dropped for that team and that’s why they were able to accomplish each of their goals,” said Johnson.
Azusa Pacific opened the season with a tough slate, squaring off with four NCAA Division II programs before a matchup with Division I Long Beach State in game No. 5. The Cougars handled Cal State San Bernardino 5-1 in their opener, and if that wasn’t enough to hint at how good this team could be a 10-2 drubbing of Cal Poly Pomona would be. A 5-0 win over Cal State L.A. preceded a 3-1 victory against Cal State Dominguez Hills, setting up an unlikely clash with Long Beach State.
Against the 49ers Azusa Pacific showed that it could handle Division I talent, going into halftime knotted at 0-0. But early in the second the Cougars, who used just two subs compared to LBSU’s 12, demonstrated their championship pedigree with a Messick score in the 54th minute to take an unlikely 1-0 advantage that would hold throughout thanks to an impressive showing by Yanos in goal. The keeper tallied seven saves and held the 49ers scoreless to move the Cougars to 5-0.
“That game against Long Beach State was huge for us and our confidence. I’ll never forget the faces of their coaching staff and players after we beat them on their field. From that point on our girls believed they could beat anybody,” said Johnson.
The win was the first of three straight shutouts before a 2-1 defeat of UC San Diego pushed Azusa Pacific to 8-0. An 11-0 blasting of Hope International, followed by a 5-0 win against Concordia extended the winning streak to 10 games, and the Cougars jumped all the way up to No. 5 in the NAIA national ratings. But Azusa Pacific’s biggest challenge was still on the horizon, and nothing was going to take its focus off of Westmont.
A tight 2-1 win over Southern California College warmed the Cougars up for their showdown with the Warriors on Oct.10. The Cougars traveled up to Santa Barbara looking to snap a 15-game winless streak against the Warriors, and it didn’t take much time before Westmont knew its run of five straight conference championships was in jeopardy.
Payne gave the Cougars a 1-0 lead on a rebound in the 15th, and put the team in a commanding position at 2-0 on a header in the 37th. Westmont, however, cut it to 2-1 early in the second, but the stout Cougar defense held on for the team’s first series win since 1992. It was Westmont’s first-ever GSAC loss, snapping a 43-match conference unbeaten streak.
“As we were putting that winning streak together we had to remind everyone that it’s one game at a time, so that when we face Westmont it means something. That first win was an incredible feeling, an incredible victory. They ended our season in 1997 and kept, what I thought was a very good team, out of the tournament. We celebrated, but then it was back to business. It was time to move on,” said Johnson.
The victory propelled the team to a ridiculous three-week, seven-match run in which the Cougars didn’t allow a goal. In the span Azusa Pacific scored 50 goals to improve to 19-0, good enough for a spot at No. 2 on the national rankings. They also clinched their first GSAC championship in that time, sealing it with a 3-0 shutout of Southern California College, breaking both a conference winning streak record and a coach’s rib in the process.
“We had a schedule on our fridge. We kept track, writing W’s and the score. After 10 wins we looked at each other and were like, ‘wow we haven’t lost a game yet.’ It was weird because it wasn’t really something we thought that much about. We just wanted to keep winning. It sounds corny and cliché, but we really just took it one game at a time,” said Restivo.
And the next game up was a rematch with Westmont, this time at home in the GSAC tournament championship. The Cougars again took a 1-0 lead on a Payne goal and it appeared as if Azusa Pacific was on its way to a second consecutive series win. But the Warriors notched the equalizer late in the second half on a PK in the 83rd minute. Azusa Pacific, however, returned the favor with a PK of its own, this time off the foot of Babel in the 87th to clinch a 2-1 win and both the GSAC regular season and tournament titles. The win also setup an NAIA regional playoff with U.S. International.
A victory would secure the program’s first-ever NAIA national tournament appearance, but regardless of the outcome it was evident that the team had done enough to earn an at-large bid.
In the match Payne and Carter each scored a pair of goals as Azusa Pacific punched its first ticket to the national tournament with a 5-2 victory.
With two of the season goals met in a GSAC title and tournament appearance, whatever happened from there on out would be icing. The Cougars hadn’t planned for anything more than reaching the national tournament, a national championship simply wasn’t on their radar.
“I never knew we were a national championship team. Our goals weren’t a national championship but as the year went on we challenged each other to up the ante. What set that team apart is that I could ask the world of them, and they really believed they could reach those goals. Every single player bought in no matter what their role was, whether they were a starter or not. But it’s crazy, because at no point before that season did I think we were going to win a championship,” said Johnson.
But as the season progressed and their goals were recalibrated, Azusa Pacific went into the tournament hoping to make some noise and keep the season going as long as they could.
When the Cougars got to the national tournament they had no idea what to expect, and likewise, none of the other teams knew what to expect from them. The mysterious team from Southern California came into the playoffs as the No. 2 team in the NAIA, and as one of two unbeaten teams in the nation.
But neither their record nor rating mattered come the night of the tournament banquet, where teams would draw for which pool they’d play in. Azusa Pacific, Berry (Ga.), Simon Fraser (B.C.) and two-time reigning champ Mobile (Ala.) held the top-seeds, and the remaining eight schools had to draw to see which pool they’d play in.
Most teams went up, pulled their draw, and quietly returned to their tables. But not Lindsey Wilson (Ky.). When they drew Azusa Pacific’s pool, they cheered as if they pulled the golden ticket to the championship, mocking the Cougars perfect record.
“They literally cheered in the banquet when they pulled our name. It was the stupidest thing they could have done. We had some nerves being there for the first time, but when they did that, when they disrespected us like that, it gave us an edge. It took some of the nerves away and made us even more fired up,” said Surrell.
The two young coaches used that moment every chance they could, motivating the girls to work even harder than they had all year so they could get the last laugh.
“Who laughs at any undefeated team? It was incredibly arrogant of them . But we were the type of team that had enough sass and confidence to use that. That was the worst thing that team could have done. We took it, we internalized it, and used it in a good way. And our coaches aren’t dumb, they used that to our advantage. They kept reminding us that we were laughed at. It really pushed us even more,” said Restivo.
In the Cougars’ first match of pool play they squared off with Lindsey Wilson, and as soon as the match began, it was clear which team was better. A Payne goal in the 24th minute put Azusa Pacific ahead 1-0, and an insurance goal from Messick secured the lopsided victory. The score may have only been 2-0, but the Cougars outshot Lindsey Wilson 11-2, and put nine of their 11 shots on goal to improve to 1-0 in pool play and set up a win-and-advance scenario against Houghton (N.Y.) the following day.
The Cougars then cruised their way into the semifinals, shutting out Houghton 5-0 to give the girls an added dose of confidence, and give the coaching staff a realistic belief that maybe they could pull it off.
“There was such an unknown about the national tournament. When CJ and I went in to scout the teams there we didn’t think we were going to win it. But as we moved on and as we saw the other teams play we changed our expectations. I think CJ and I felt like we were as good as anyone there after day one,” said Surrell.
With the Cougars advancing all the way to the semifinals in their first appearance they had already received the attention of everyone at the tournament. But with the two-time defending NAIA champions in tournament host Mobile on the docket in the semifinals, nobody expected the run to continue.
“When we got there we knew we had a pretty good chance, not that we thought we’d win it. We figured everyone else was playing for second place against Mobile,” said Surrell.
The two teams held the longest active unbeaten streaks in the NAIA, with the Cougars’ run of 23 wins being doubled by Mobile’s string of 46. It was as much of a David/Goliath scenario as there is that deep in a tournament, but fortunately for Azusa Pacific, the Cougars were too naive to know any better.
In what has become one of the most iconic matches in Cougar history, Azusa Pacific hung with the two-time champions through the first 45 minutes of play, and went into the half with a scoreless tie on Mobile’s home field; although the Cougar fans easily outnumbered Mobile’s.
But perhaps even more shocking than the score, was Surrell’s halftime adjustment speech. The second year assistant was never lacking for criticism, or ‘advice’ as he calls it. But for the first and only time in his career he had nothing to say.
“At halftime we were waiting for him to rip us a new one. Jason is the kind of guy that always had something to say, no matter what. He always had some criticism of how we were playing or how we could improve. But for once he had nothing. I still remember hearing him say this, ‘I haven’t said this before, but I have nothing to say. You guys are playing great.’”
And in the second half the Cougars continued to keep with Mobile, eventually snagging a short-lived lead in the 75th minute thanks to an Alfiler goal. Mobile tied it back up two minutes later, sending the match to overtime. The already exhausted teams then endured not one, but four overtime periods with neither team budging through 150 minutes of painstakingly tense soccer.
“It was a battle. Being the underdog, not having faced teams ranked like that, we didn’t know any better. We hadn’t been in that position. But it wasn’t something that we backed down from. Our tough games prepared us for that time. As that game went on it built our confidence. There was never a moment we didn’t believe we’d win,” said Johnson.
After 150 minutes and a 1-1 tie, a trip to the championship match came down to a shootout. Mobile went up first, and took a 1-0 lead in PKs before Lisa Lawrence knotted it at 1-1. On Mobile’s next attempt Yanos made the stop of the night, blocking Courtney Miles’ PK with a diving stop to her right. Duran got it past the keeper to make it 2-1, and an errant Mobile shot gave the Cougars a chance to clinch the shootout win with Babel on deck. And the GSAC Player of the Year delivered, setting off a championship caliber celebration.
“We celebrated like we won the whole thing. We were happy to win to play for the championship, and we were happy that we get to play with each other for another game,” said Duran.
But even amid the celebration the Cougars knew there was more to accomplish.
“During that shootout is the quietest I’ve ever been. I was so nervous. But after clinching it there was an amazing feeling. We reached the championship match. It’s probably the most emotional I’ve ever been as a coach,” said Johnson. “I don’t remember feeling like we won it, but it was such a big step for us. We were so exhausted and after celebrating I remember how the girls responded. They were so professional, that they couldn’t wait to get back to the hotel to take ice baths and get ready for the next day.”
And in the final against a Simon Fraser team that had been to two straight championship matches, any lingering effects of the previous night’s marathon were gone. The Cougars looked strong in their bid for an undefeated season, grabbing a 1-0 first half lead after right-footed Payne scored the go-ahead goal with her shoeless left foot in the 42nd minute.
Then early in the second half Payne set up Carter for a commanding 2-0 lead with 58:34 on the clock. It seemed the Cougars were destined for the banner, but Simon Fraser responded with a goal minutes later, giving way to the longest 15 minutes of Johnson’s life.
The Simon Fraser goal, however, turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it led to one of the most memorable moments of Johnson’s coaching career. With the minutes slowly ticking off the clock a tensed up Johnson noticed something strange. He noticed silence.
“With minutes to go I realized our bench was quiet. I got up off the bench and I yelled, ‘why aren’t we cheering for the girls!’ And I remember them looking up at me and one said, ‘coach, we’re praying.’ Talk about putting your foot in your mouth,” he said. “It was emblematic of that season and the character of those girls. There were girls on that team that were non-believers, but because of the impact they had they became saved. That was the type of team we had. They were as great off the field as they were on it.”
As the minutes wound into seconds, a Cougar national championship seemed inevitable. Simon Fraser had one shot in the closing minutes, but Azusa Pacific held on, capturing the first and only national championship in program history.
“I think most of us forget about the national championship because of how intense that semifinal was. And when we finally won it was certainly a surreal feeling. I kept thinking we’d wake up. It was kind of a weird feeling to think that we were the best team in the country,” said Surrell.
The Cougars had put the finishing touches on an undefeated season, running the table in record-breaking fashion. But despite a championship banner there were mixed emotions following the 2-1 victory over Simon Fraser.
“We were so happy we won, but even when the finals were over we were sad because that was our last game together. We had so much fun as a team and that last game signaled the end,” said Duran.
But as always, Johnson was there to lift the spirits, fulfilling a promise to let the girls shave his head once the team won the championship.
“CJ was such a good sport. We already broke his rib and now he was going to let us shave his head. It was a great way to end the year. I have so many great memories from that season,” said Duran.
The 1998 Cougars kick started a run that saw Azusa Pacific become one of the preeminent programs in the NAIA. The Cougars went to 13 consecutive national tournaments, reaching the NAIA semifinals nine times, including four championship match appearances from 1998 to 2011 before Azusa Pacific began its transition towards NCAA Division II membership. It was a year that saw more success than any other in school history, and it was achieved by a small group of 16 that just didn’t want it to end.
“You look back on that group. If we didn’t win it and lost in the semis it would still be a special group. At our reunion there was very little about soccer. We talked about the relationships, the experiences. Sure we won it, and it’s an incredible accomplishment, but it goes deeper than that,” said Surrell, who has posted a 222-35-20 record in his 13 years at the helm since taking over for Johnson following the 1999 season.
“The players, staff, family, support staff, and everyone involved was a big family. I’m big with the family side of things. That team on and off the field truly was just incredible with friendships that still last to that day. We stay in touch with those players. I just remember the support that they had for each other, and the drive to push each other to be competitive without getting feelings hurt,” said Johnson. “They really drew the best out of each other on and off the field. We had so much support throughout that year that it made the pressure of winning game after game go away.”
It was the dream season that nobody expected. Well, nobody except an ambitious senior that courageously penned her dream season, and had the privilege of watching it unfold with her best friends.
1998 AZUSA PACIFIC WOMEN’S SOCCER ROSTER
1. Rachel Yanos (Jr., GK)
2. Nicole Restivo (Sr., D)
3. Tina Brescini (Jr., MF/D)
4. Allison Nagle (Jr., D)
5. Janay Duran (Jr., MF)
7. Jennifer Babel (Jr., D)
8. Lisa Lawrence (Jr., MF)
9. Andrea Alfiler (So., MF)
10. Rachel Messick (So., MF)
11 Celeste Mitchell (Jr., MF)
13. Kendra Payne (So., F)
14. Jolie Robison (Jr., MF)
15. Kerri Sparks (Sr., D)
Melissa Myers (So., F)
18. Kimber Carter (Fr., F)
19. Jennifer White (So., D)
1998 AZUSA PACIFIC WOMEN’S SOCCER COACHING STAFF
Head Coach: Christian Johnson
Assistant: Jason Surrell