Starting a new series here at ZUNews, we will be looking at the year of 1998 – a year that most embodied the impressive stature of APU athletics. To begin, we look at the ’98 Women’s Soccer squad.

Under second-year head coach Christian Johnson, expectations during the 1998 season weren’t big for Azusa Pacific’s women’s soccer team. Before Johnson entered the program, they had not made a postseason appearance for eight consecutive years. When the new coach in Johnson took command, their six regular-season losses during his rookie campaign was enough to make that postseason-less total nine

The six losses came from three Division II schools and the contending Golden State Athletic Conference (GSAC) champions in the Westmont College Warriors, who defeated them three times that season, including a season-ending 3-1 defeat. Azusa Pacific’s struggles against the Warriors that season was enough for them to have revenge on their minds.

“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 coach Johnson.

Nevertheless, their ’98 schedule was not a favorable one. The Cougars had to face four NCAA Division II programs along with a Division I school in Long Beach State. The expectations were the same as the seasons before. While the players expected to have a better season than the previous year, winning a national championship, or even a conference championship, seemed far-fetched.

Yet, the motivation from previous disappointments kept them eager for the upcoming campaign. 

“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,” said then-junior midfielder Janay Duran. “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.”

The Cougars started the season off beating Cal State Bernardino 5-1 in the opener, followed by victories against the Cal Poly Mustangs, Cal State Los Angeles Golden Eagles and the Cal State Dominguez Hills Toros. It was a blazing 4-0 start to the season. 

This then led to a matchup with Division I rivals Long Beach State 49ers. They started 0-0 at halftime, which showed they were able to handle the Division I competition. Just 45 minutes later the whistle sounded and the Cougars won the game 1-0 with a goal by Rachel Messick in the 54th minute. With the win against Long Beach State, they felt they were primed for a great season and knew their potential had only just met the horizon. 

“That game against Long Beach State was huge for us and our confidence,” said Johnson. “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.”

They would continue to beat teams, maintaining a winning streak that would eventually hit the 10th consecutive win mark. This run would put them at number five on the NAIA National Rankings list. After extending their streak to 11 by beating Southern California College 2-1, they were set to face their biggest rivals: the Warriors. 

Westmont College had five straight conference championships along with a 43-game conference unbeaten streak, and they were looking to dominate yet again. This time, however, the Cougars were a much better team that had a massive chip on their back. They had been dreaming about this matchup for a year.

The game started with Kendra Payne scoring two goals, one in the 15th minute off a rebound and a header in the 37th minute. Westmont was able to cut the lead in half early in the second half, but the Cougars held on to win the game, snapping the spectacular 43 game conference streak and accomplishing a win over the conference rivals who ended their season the previous year.

Then, they went on to stay undefeated, tallying win after win and not allowing an opponent to score a single goal during a seven-game run. In that same run, Azusa scored 50 goals.

After a 9-3 win against Southern California College, they ended up clinching their first GSAC Championship berth in history and they were about to face Westmont again, but this time for the GSAC Championship. 

Payne once again scored the first goal, but the Warriors responded thanks to an 83rd-minute penalty kick. However, in the 87th minute, the Cougars had a chance to break the tie with a penalty kick of their own. They were able to convert the score with the goal from Jennifer Babel. The 2-1 win gave them their first GSAC Championship in their program’s history, and they also got a chance to compete in the NAIA National Tournament.

“I never knew we were a national championship team,” said Johnson. “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 believed they could reach those goals.”

The teams of the tournament met at a banquet to see who they would draw to play against. When Lindsey Wilson College women’s soccer team drew Azusa they celebrated mockingly, as they thought APU was going to be an easy matchup since it was their first time competing in the bracket. 

“They literally cheered in the banquet when they pulled our name,” said assistant coach Jason Surrell. “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.”

The Cougars played Lindsey Wilson and they ended up shutting them out 2-0, outshooting them the entire game. Their laughs were turned to frustrations, as the “rookie” Cougars eliminated their mocking foes. After that win, they were set to play Houghton College.

They once again acquired a shutout against Houghton, winning 5-0 and building their resume as the best team in the tournament. Azusa was set to play the two-time reigning champions in the University of Mobile Rams. The Rams and the Cougars were ranked as the top two squads in the specific tournament. Mobile, however, had an exceptional experience, and there were a lot of people thinking that Mobile had the advantage.

After a strong display from both squads in the semi-final, there remained a 1-1 tie at the end of regulation, heading into a penalty kick shootout for a chance to compete for the championship.

Mobile struck the first kick and they took a 1-0 advantage, and Lisa Lawrence would tie it up for the Cougars. Then APU’s goalkeeper Rachel Yanos made a spectacular save, diving to her right to stop the penalty kick from Rams’ player Courtney Miles to keep it 1-1. Duran would go on to make it 2-1, which was followed by another miss from Mobile. Babel, set at the penalty spot, would go on to hit the game-winner and seal the win, giving the Cougars an NAIA National Championship game appearance and a chance to win it all.

The Cougars were set to play the number four ranked Simon Fraser of British Columbia in the Final. They took a 1-0 lead thanks to a tally from Payne in the 42nd minute. Then Payne assisted Carter, making it a 2-0 game in the 58th minute. Simon Fraser responded just a minute later, making it 2-1. 

The minutes continued to countdown until the result remained the same, and the Cougars had won. Yet, due to both an emotionally daunting semifinal, and a realization that the journey was coming to an end, there were mixed emotions.

“We were so happy we won, but even when the finals were over, we were sad because that was our last game together,”  said Duran. “We had so much fun as a team and that last game signaled the end.”

Yet, it was certainly an end to remember.

This ’98 team went from a squad with very little hope of making a postseason berth to finally making it into the conference playoffs and winning a national championship. With that, they also accomplished these feats with an undefeated record. Despite doubts from not only those on the outside, but within the team itself, their success showed just how special their program was, and they remain one of the most established squads in APU’s athletic history.