KISSIMMEE, Fla.-- Sophomore forward Mayra Almazan might have said it best after her golden goal lifted the Azusa Pacific women’s soccer team to the National Christian College Athletics Association national championship over Dallas Baptist in Saturday’s 2-1 overtime win.
“It’s still surreal. With 16 new players people thought it was supposed to be a rebuilding year. Nobody expected us to win the PacWest, and nobody thought we could win the national championship. It’s amazing,” she said after her left-footed strike found the back of the net in the fourth minute of overtime.
The Cougars that graduated 11 seniors in 2012 weren’t the team anyone expected to win the program’s second national championship at the beginning of the year, but midway through a conference championship season it became evident that these Cougars had the makings of something special.
“Honestly, with so many new pieces, I would have thought second or third in the conference, and to qualify for the tournament would have been great. But we never said that, and those were never our goals. We set the bar high and this group achieved it,” said Surrell, who was an assistant for the program’s first national championship when the Cougars won the NAIA tournament in 1998.
“I feel like it was such a difficult tournament, as difficult as the NAIA tournaments have been in the past. The competition was really strong. Point Loma is a really good program, and I thought Dallas Baptist was the best team in the tournament. I’m happy with how we played and how we competed.”
Azusa Pacific won the program’s second national championship following a grueling five day stretch in which Azusa Pacific played four matches in the Florida heat before Almazan’s sixth game-winning goal secured the school’s 50th all-time national championship.
Making the feat even more impressive is that Azusa Pacific did it against a team that over the past two seasons made deep postseason runs in the NCAA Division II playoffs, and hadn’t allowed a goal throughout the NCCAA postseason this year. But on Saturday the Cougars overcame a 1-0 hole in the first half, getting the equalizer moments before the break before forcing overtime against the Patriots in an evenly played match at the Austin Tindall Sports Complex.
Both teams placed five shots on goal in the game, and Azusa Pacific finished with a narrow 15-13 advantage in total shots. Both keepers were superb, coming up with game-winning save after game-winning save, before Alamzan found a crease in the Dallas Baptist defense, got past the first line, and bent in a left-footed shot into the far left corner past a diving Kerry Ewards in the 94th minute.
“Coach told me to not only beat the first defender, but to get past that first layer, and that’s what I tried to do. We’ve been through so much this year, and I’m proud of the way we came together,” said Almazan.
Almazan, who was a first-team All-Pacific West Conference player in her first year with the team, was named the NCCAA Outstanding Offensive Player of the championships, scoring three times, including twice in Azusa Pacific’s 2-0 semifinal victory against Point Loma.
“Mayra has that ability. Two minutes before she scored we told the team to get Mayra the ball. She was beating the defender, and then when she got it she hit an absolute rocket at the upper-v.
The Azusa Pacific defense, which has been the star all season, maintained its dominant play against a Dallas Baptist team that had outscored its opponents 50-2 during a 13-1 stretch since Oct. 14. The Cougars limited the Patriots to one goal, and kept a surging DBU team off the scoreboard over the final 55 minutes of play.
Sarah Klinkenberg registered four saves, while the senior-laden back line of Danielle Ross, Allie Stone, Natalie Nick had to play without Nick, due to injury. Logan Chan and Haley Arft, however stepped in and played well, turning away a litany of Patriot chances to keep the Cougars in the game.
“Klinkenberg made a great save on a breakaway. She was big for us. There have been times where she hasn’t had to do much, but today she came up big. And then you have the back four, which has been solid all season. Logan stepped up big with Nick out, and Haley isn’t a regular starter but she did really well. And of course Ross and Stone have been great for us all year. I believe it was their will and determination that drove us this season,” said Surrell.
Ross, a four-year starter and the 2011 NAIA Outstanding Defensive Player of the tournament, received the 2013 NCCAA Outstanding Overall Player honor, and Stone was named to the all-tournament team after guiding the Cougars two four wins and two shutouts during the postseason.
Like a heavyweight match, the two teams felt the other out during the opening 20 minutes. The Patriots got on the board first, cleaning up a rebound off a set piece with Lea Sedwick’s fourth goal of the season in the 39th minute.
The Cougars, however, got the equalizer off a nice play from Mikaela Truckey, who dribbled down the right side before sending in a cross in search of Haley Fisher. Fisher battled with a Dallas Baptist defender near the six, and just got enough of the ball to push it across the line.
“Both of those goals were big swings. On their score it was a scramble that bounced around and they poked it in. It was huge to get our goal before the half. Mikalea got around and crossed it, and then Haley was in the right spot at the right time and found a way to score. For us to answer at that time was pretty huge,” said Surrell.
In the second half both teams had good opportunities. Alyx Williams took a free from eight yards beyond the box, and nearly bent it into the left corner of the goal, but Kerry Edwards made a beautiful diving save to punch away the shot and keep the match knotted at 1-1.
Minutes later Jake Cox had a breakaway chance, but Klinkenberg corralled in the fastbreak shot for one of her four second half saves. Cox had another chance later in the frame on a counter, but instead of taking what looked like an open shot, opted to cross it towards the middle where the Cougar defense sent it away.
In the beginning of overtime Chan made a nice defensive play, blocking Cox’s shot on the left side of the box. Cox, however, regained control and sent a shot towards the far corner, but it failed to bend, and sailed off the mark before Alamzan ended the tournament with her game winner.
Azusa Pacific, which is in year No. 3 of NCAA Division II candidacy, will be eligible for NCAA postseason play upon receiving full NCAA membership next season.