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Men’s Soccer: Warriors Rise Above Devastation to Clinch GSAC Title

The win means Westmont is awarded an automatic berth in the NAIA National Championship Tournament.

Every coach looks for ways to inspire his or her team to greatness. Some days, that motivation comes from places he or she would never expect — and never want. Monday was one of those days.

Four days after his home burned to the ground in the Tea Fire, Westmont men’s soccer head coach Dave Wolf watched from the bench as his team won the Golden State Athletic Conference Championship by defeating No. 5 Azusa Pacific (13-4-3) 2-0.

Wolf was not the only member of the Warrior team to have suffered a loss in the fire. Senior midfielder Jonathon Schoff and his six roommates lost the home they rented a mile from campus, and the dorm room of freshman defender Zach George was consumed by the blaze. Sophomore Ben Gordon, who lived in the same dormitory as George, also suffered damage to his room when it was flooded during firefighting activity.

“We knew we were playing for more than just ourselves,” senior goalkeeper Justin Etherton said. “We were playing for our school, we were playing for our coach, we were playing for hope in our fans.”

Even before Thursday’s fire that destroyed two academic buildings, the baseball/soccer facility, 14 faculty housing residences and the dorm rooms of 50 students, Westmont (10-6-2) was a clear underdog. The Warriors had finished sixth in the GSAC standings and were the sixth seed in the eight-team tournament.

Westmont earned its spot in the championship game by winning twice on the road. In the first round, the Warriors upset third-seeded Vanguard, ranked at No. 20 at the time, by a score of 3-2. Then in the semifinals, Westmont traveled to Irvine where it defeated second-seeded and ninth-ranked Concordia by a score of 1-0.

After the win against Concordia, Westmont had one week to prepare for the championship game against the reigning national champions. Wolf was returning from a training session on Thursday afternoon when he looked up and saw flames in the hills above the campus and the faculty housing community. 

“I ran in, grabbed some important documents, and left with four of my five children and my mother who was visiting,” Wolf said. “My wife, Jill, was away from our home with one of our daughters. Later that night we learned from a neighbor who had also lost her home that our home was gone. On Friday, we returned to find just one doorpost standing. We lost everything.”

Faced with the loss of his home, Wolf called his brother Phil — who happens to be the head coach for Azusa Pacific. Phil Wolf, with the approval of Azusa Pacific Athletic Director Bill Odell, agreed to postpone the game that had been scheduled for Saturday. Approval from the GSAC and the NAIA for the postponement and rescheduling followed Friday.

From an athletic perspective, the first challenge for Wolf and the rest of the coaching staff was to find his team.

“Thursday night was not easy for them,” Wolf said of his players. “They were dispersed all over Southern California on floors and couches.”

Friday’s scheduled training session could not take place, but practice was held Saturday, thanks to the generosity of UCSB, which allowed the Warriors to utilize a campus field. Saturday evening, the team boarded the bus and headed to Azusa. By the time Monday’s game arrived, the team was eager to get on the field and play.

From the opening kickoff, it was apparent that the Warriors were playing with passion. Though the first-half stats were nearly identical for both teams, the Warriors controlled possession for most of the opening frame. At intermission, however, the score remained 0-0.

Less than five minutes into the second half the Warriors put their first goal in the net. Schoff took control of the ball on the right flank and dribbled down the field before sending a pass to the near post. The pass found the feet of sophomore forward Harrison Hill who pounded home his second goal of the season.

The Warrior faithful erupted in celebration. About 250 Westmont fans attended the game, partly because of the suspension of classes until Dec. 1. Many students came from their homes throughout Southern California, and others rode on a bus supplied by the school. Those who came on the bus were treated to a free lunch by Azusa Pacific, which also picked up the tab for everyone’s admission.

“It meant everything to have the fans here,” Etherton said after the game.

After Hill scored, he made his way to the Warrior bench and sought out the coach.

“Harrison ran over he said, ‘First brick in the new house,’” Wolf said.

Westmont’s second goal came in the 72nd minute of the game. George threw the ball into play from the left sideline. His long pass was headed by Schoff to the top of the box. Junior midfielder Hugo Pizano took just one touch to bury the ball in the back of the net.

“Against APU, one goal is never enough,” Schoff said. “We have matured as a team, and we know that we must keep going. Once we got the second goal, it took some stress off.”

Like Hill, Pizano headed for his coach and jumped into his arms with the entire team following after him.

After the team returned to the field, Westmont’s defense, which performed admirably, held up for another 19 minutes to give the Warriors the 2-0.

“Coach said the first half was perfect,” said George, referring to the teams’ defense. “We knew we had to come out in the second half like we did in the first. When we started scoring, we pushed our formation back. We put an extra midfielder outside so that we could have some more support in the back.”

“It was exciting as we got closer and closer,” Etherton said. “I was counting down, ‘Only 10 minutes and we’re in nationals, only five minutes ‘til we’re in nationals.”

As a result of the win, Westmont is awarded the conference’s automatic berth in the NAIA National Championship Tournament. The Warriors are seeded 11th in the field of 31 and will host Holy Names (14-3) on Saturday. Because of the condition of the Westmont campus, the time and the location of that game are yet to be determined.

“The team has played terrific in the post season and has grown a lot,” Wolf said. “It was a wonderful performance against an incredible team. Over the last five years, Azusa Pacific is without a doubt the best team in the country.

“What Azusa Pacific extended to us and to our campus …” Wolf began before silenced by emotion. “I am just thankful. That’s it. That sums it up. My hearts full and I’m thankful for what has happened. I told the guys before the game, ‘You could play in the national final this year, but you will never play in a game like today.’ It’s because of God, first and foremost, because he knits this kind of thing together. But it is because of people like Bill Odell, Gary Pine (APU SID) and Joe Reinsch (APU Assistant SID) who were calling and asking if they could pay for lodging and pay for food. They hosted our fans for lunch. Who does that? All the way around it was an incredible experience. Everything that happened around this day is a testimony to what happens when people of faith get ignited.”

“This game wasn’t just for us as a team, it was for coach Wolf and it was for our school,” Schoff said. “Having a win in this game helped to revive spirits for the team and helps revive Wolfy’s spirits. He has two things — he has his family and he has soccer. We made one of them go well today.”

Ron Smith is Westmont College‘s sports information director.

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