Thursday, August 23, 2012

Great Falls edges gritty Northwest Christian in Red Lion Challenge opener

Northwest Christian nearly stunned nationally-ranked Great Falls | Photos: Gerald Barnhart (full gallery)
Northwest Christian University (Salem, Ore.) was picked to finished last in their eight-team Cascade Collegiate Conference preseason poll, but don’t tell that to nationally ranked University of Great Falls, who were stymied much of the night at the Dwight Merkel Sports Complex in Spokane, Wash. before claiming a 1-0 victory.

Ironically, in a second half in which they dominated possession, it was a counter that provided the lone goal for the side from Montana as Manuel Espinoza played a ball out of midfield that caught the defense out of position and allowed Danny Delgadillo to beat one remaining defender and the keeper before putting the ball into the empty net in the 54th minute.

Mendoza, left, was an early threat for UGF
It was a tale of two games for 21st-ranked Argos of the Frontier Conference. Though they allowed few quality chances to the Beacons, the possession was inconsistent as the two teams battled back-and-forth in the midfield.

“I think we came out with a little bit of the first season jitters,” said head coach Paul Zazenski. “We got a lot of new faces; got about 14 freshman and a lot of new guys to the program, so I think that is gonna to happen early on in the season. Overall, my challenge to them at halftime was to make this matter; make it a championship level game and come out with that intensity in the second half and you’ll take care of what you need to do. And most likely if we put that effort on the field, we’ll get the results.

“I was proud of the efforts in the second half, not so much in the first half, but it’s still early.

“The play was even,” he said of the first 45. “I think it was a good test for us, especially early on in the year. Our pregame going in was to high pressure them and finish our chances and I don’t really think we did either of those in the first half. We got one in the second half and we did a better job of working together as a defensive unit. Overall we got a lot of things to work on but I am pleased with the result.

NCU goalkeeper Dusty Stephens was the biggest impediment for the Argos, who consistently pressured the NCU defense. The sophomore netminder made six saves in the first half and another eight in the second to keep the Beacons in the contest.

“He played fantastic,” said Zazenski. “I think I remember on the roster him being a freshman or sophomore and for him to step up and play like that is a testament to where their program is headed. They’ve got a fantastic goalkeeper in net for, I assume, the next couple of years.”

The second half, though, was nearly all Great Falls as the Argos held an extreme advantage in possession, rarely allowing NCU in the offensive half of the pitch, let alone the final third for a chance at goal.

The Argos had the best chances of the first half with Espinoza forcing good saves from Stephens in the 17th and 26th minutes. In the 29th, Christian Johansen had a dangerous chance as he was all alone with the keeper at the top of the 18 only to see Stephens knock it away. Five minutes later he rose up on the left side for a header that was batted away by the keeper.

Delgadillo struck for the winner
In the second half Delgadillo, who had two goals in their season-opening win at home last week, came alive. Twenty seconds in he had a wide open shot from outside the box. The slow roller, however, bounced off the bottom of the left post. Five minutes later he sent a low ball across the area that found Andrew Gillen on the far side, but the shot from the tight angle was closed off by Stephens at the last second on the post.

“I think those two guys are our offensive leaders,” Zazenski said of Espinoza and Delgadillo, who are charged with replacing departed Second Team All-American senior Ryan O’Neil, who scored 22 of the team’s 54 goals a year ago. “Delgadillo has really stepped up so far this season. Has the confidence to be a 10-plus goal scorer.”

Three minutes later, Delgadillo finally nabbed the only goal they would need, though the Argos would continue to control the match and look to secure the win with another strike. Another stop by Stephens in the 69th minute on the second chance off a corner kept the Beacons alive.

Paul Silwa rifled a long effort in the 77th that went just wide and six minutes later Johansen rose up on a corner and nearly found the net with a great header only to see Stephens made a great reaction save.

The Argos are now 2-0-0 for the season with a pair of shutouts, having defeated the University of Lethbridge (Canada) last weekend, 3-0. They face Warner Pacific Friday evening in the second match of a doubleheader with NCU playing Rocky Mountain College in the opener at 5:00 pm PT. 

“I am extremely impressed with Juan Guzman and Marius Theodorsen, our other captain,” Zazenski said of the defense. “Guzman is not a captain, but he plays bigger than anybody on the field. He’s a solid defender and if he’s on his game, not many people, if any, are gonna get by him.

“With four shots on frame for them, it’s definitely a good start for us, but at the end of the day it’s got to be a team defensive effort, not just our back line or center backs.”