ST. CHARLES, Mo. – Sophomore forward Erin Arbizu’s goal, 1 minute into the first overtime, lifted the NAIA’s No. 3-ranked Azusa Pacific to a 1-0 victory over top-ranked Lindenwood University in the semifinals of the NAIA Women’s Soccer Championship Tournament.
With the victory Azusa Pacific advances to tomorrow’s national championship game where it will meet arch-rival and fellow Golden State Athletic Conference member Westmont College at 4 p.m. (PST) for the national championship. This marks the first time in NAIA women’s soccer history that 2 teams from the same conference will play for the national crown. However, this was hardly unexpected. Azusa Pacific and Westmont are the 2 winningest programs in the NAIA over the past 5 years and it was only a matter of time before they would eventually meet head-to-head for the championship. The Cougars won the NAIA championship in 1998 before Westmont answered with its own title in 1999 and another last year.
In tonight’s victory over tournament host Lindenwood, Aribizu got a half-step advantage on her defender and then unloaded am 18-yard shot across the box that found the upper V of the goal to end the game just 78 seconds into the overtime frame. For Arbizu, it was her 18th goal of the season and her third of the national tournament.
“It was an unbelievable shot,” said Azusa Pacific coach Jason Surrell. “Her defender was right there, but Erin just hit a rocket that no one could have stopped. It was a beautiful goal.”
The Cougars controlled play for the majority of the game. Azusa Pacific out-shot Lindenwood, 13-5, but Lady Lion keeper Monica Lovett continually frustrated the Cougar offensive advances with 9 of her tournament-leading 24 saves. The intensity of the game appeared to be taking a toll of the Cougars midway through the second half, and Surrell freely subbed his forwards in an attempt to keep them fresh.
“We were a little fatigued for awhile,” said Surrell, “but we regained the emotion at the start of overtime.”
The game was vastly similar to last year’s gut-wrenching semifinal tie to Oklahoma City in which the Cougars failed to advance to the championship game, falling to OCU via penalty kicks. OCU lost the next night to Westmont in the title game.
“Just before the start of overtime I reminded the girls of the pain they felt this time last year,” said Surrell, “then I reminded them of who was waiting at the end of this game if they won. That was enough to re-energize them.”
During the regular season Azusa Pacific captured its third straight GSAC championship, finishing a half-game ahead of Westmont. However, Westmont handed the Cougars 2 of their 3 losses, a 2-0 setback in Santa Barbara and then a 1-0 verdict in the NAIA regional playoff game in Azusa. Though their success on the national level is unmatched in recent years, this will be only their second meeting ever between Azusa Pacific and Westmont at the national tourney. In 1999, Westmont downed the Cougars, 2-1, in the NAIA semifinals.
With the victory, Azusa Pacific improves to 16-3 overall while Lindenwood’s season comes to an end at 19-2-2. Westmont, which earlier in the day defeated Union College of Kentucky, 4-0, in the other semifinal, heads into the championship game with a 19-1-3 mark.