COSTA MESA — Two months ago, Vanguard University men's soccer coach Randy Dodge gathered his team for an important meeting.
With tears in his eyes he told his players of his mistake, about how he forgot to sit out a game to begin the season because of a red card from the finale last year. The Lions would have to forfeit six games, which meant their No. 5 ranking in the NAIA would drop and their chances for reaching the national tournament would be difficult.
But Dodge's emotion stirred the Lions. The players became motivated.
In the Golden State Athletic Conference Tournament title match at Vanguard, that determination showed. The Lions scored three goals in the first half Saturday and punched their first ticket in school history to the national tournament with a 3-0 win against Azusa Pacific.
"As a professional I was destroyed, but these guys brought me back," Dodge said. "I did take it hard. These guys said, 'Screw it. We're good enough that we're going to win out.' They said, 'Coach, don't even worry about it. We got your back.' "
The Lions started the year 5-0-1, but those games counted as 1-0 losses after Dodge's penalty. After Dodge's dramatic meeting with his team, Vanguard (13-7) won 13 of the next 14 matches, including 10 straight, posting nine shutouts along the way.
Dodge said he discovered his infraction the day before the Lions' GSAC opener at Azusa Pacific Sept. 25. He showed discomfort talking about it on Saturday. He just wanted to talk about the Lions' success instead.
Who could blame him? Vanguard, ranked No. 16, was dynamic in the first half and dominant defensively throughout.
"We came out with a lot of passion and a lot of heart," said goalie Trevor Herrera, one of six Lions who are on the All-GSAC team. "We had to win or we go home. We transferred that in the first half. I don't think Azusa was ready for the amount of pace that we were going at."
Herrera said the Lions have been playing with that type of energy ever since Dodge told them of the forfeits.
"Dodge came to us and he was very emotional," said Herrera, who made seven saves. "He was crying and he had tears coming down his face. The team came together and instead of reacting negatively everybody said, 'It doesn't matter what you did. We're going to win the GSAC and go to nationals.' It's a testament of what a team can do when the players come together.
"It definitely motivated us. We knew we had to win every single game. That's what had us in the playoff mood the whole season. It made sure we had our eyes on the prize every game. Would we have won without having such motivation? I don't know. But I do know that it definitely motivated us."
The Cougars (16-4-1), ranked No. 12, got behind early and could not mount any type of momentum. Vanguard had a good-sized crowd show up, 813 in attendance to see history being made.
Kevin Cornwall helped make that happen with his goal in the 17th minute. The GSAC Player of the Year headed in the ball after a corner kick from Jack Plummer and a chip from Kyle O'Brien.
Cornwall had been dealing with hamstring issues throughout the week. He ended up playing just 25 minutes, but was plenty effective as he drew two defenders most of the time.
After the Lions went up, 2-0, on O'Brien's unassisted goal in the 24th minute, Dodge pulled Cornwall. The Ireland native wanted to stay in, but he realized the strategy.
Afterward he was ecstatic to help Vanguard reach its goal. Last year, he was a redshirt. Before that he had been writing to schools in America, trying to transfer from Ireland. He also wrote to Azusa Pacific.
"[APU] didn't show any interest," the 22-year-old sophomore said. "Vanguard and Dodge showed the most interest in me."
Dodge stressed after the victory that the Lions are more about just one player.
Senior midfielder Tomislav Colic was an example, as he put in a beautiful goal in the 31st minute to cap the scoring. Junior Adam Holstein assisted. Colic fired a shot from about 35 yards out that was just too quick for the goalie to get any part of his body on it.
From there, Herrera led a defense that constantly turned the Cougars away.
"Trevor Herrera came up big," Dodge said. "Jeremy Hampton was awesome at center back."
Dodge said the Lions will learn about where they play in the national tournament today.
"[This win is] the epitome of our team," he said. "We've been great all year. Unfortunately because of my mistake we lost six games, but these guys didn't change. They stayed the same. They were awesome."