Compliments of a Golden State Athletic Conference sponsor, Vanguard University sophomore Ashley McCutcheon was one of four Lions awarded an embroidered backpack for making the all-conference women's soccer team on Tuesday.
The gift, accepted before the first round of the GSAC tournament against Biola, was completely appropriate, as McCutcheon proceeded to shoulder much of the load in a 1-0 victory on Vanguard's newly completed turf field.
McCutcheon, a defender who Vanguard Coach Randy Dodge unabashedly calls the best player on the team, headed in the only tally off a Jen Martin corner kick in the 51st minute. In her primary gig as a center defender, the Aliso Niguel High product helped the Lions (15-3), ranked No. 11 in the NAIA, record their 10th shutout of the season.
"I am so proud of [McCutcheon]," Dodge said after her performance propelled the No. 3-seeded Lions into Thursday's semifinal at No. 2-seeded and No. 3-ranked Westmont. "She has just been an absolute warrior for us. Without her, we are not where we are right now and people don't realize that. I'm going to tell the team that [in the subsequent postgame address], but I think they all know that. Even [senior GSAC Co-Player of the Year Jordan Davidson] knows that."
McCutcheon helped the hosts withstand a spirited effort from No. 6-seeded Biola (9-9-1, 3-6-1), which was eliminated and likely will not receive an at-large berth into the NAIA Tournament. The Eagles, who were defeated by Vanguard, 2-0, in their regular-season meeting on Oct. 19, posted a 15-11 advantage in shots, including eight shots on goal to the Lions' four.
"We weathered the storm," said Dodge, who had high praise for Biola's performance, as did McCutcheon.
"In the first half, I felt like they kept coming at us strong because they had a lot of energy," McCutcheon said of the visitors. "And in the last 20 minutes, they kept coming at us pretty hard. But our defensive line kept our composure and kept on getting every single ball out. In the second half, I feel like we really stepped up, because we really wanted to win."
Vanguard junior goalkeeper Lauren Terry, motivated in a different way by the all-conference selections, made eight saves, including retreating to pounce on a shot that had ricocheted out of her grasp just before it reached the goal line late in the second half.
"[Terry] is just one of the best shot-stoppers in the country," Dodge said. "She wasn't voted All-GSAC and I think that's motivating her a little bit. She was an All-American [and All-GSAC] last year, but there were two other really good goalkeepers in the GSAC this year."
Terry's challenge may have appeared bigger when sophomore defender Asia Kleinmeyer, who had played every minute this season, exited the game in the 25th minute and did not return. Kleinmeyer cleared a ball near the goal line that had gotten past Terry in the 20th minute.
"We had to put Makenna [Yarbor, a junior backup] in there and she did a great job at the other center back for us," Dodge said.
Outside backs Megan Hill, a senior, and Angela Hook, a sophomore, also helped maintain the clean sheet for the Lions, who, Dodge said, produced most of the game's best scoring chances.
Midway through the first half, junior midfielder Veronica Aguilar had the ball walking in near the right post, when she shot toward the far post, just wide of the goal.
Just before halftime, Vanguard backup midfielder Janell Koide was camped just outside the far post when she one-timed a cross from Davidson, but missed the mark.
Davidson, using her trademark speed, charged in near the right post and chipped a shot toward the upper portion of the net moments into the second half. But Biola goalkeeper Briana Williams made one of her three saves by punching the ball over the crossbar and behind the net.
Davidson, the GSAC Player of the Year and a first-team All-American in 2012 when the then-junior community college transfer had 18 goals and 12 assists to help the Lions win the conference regular-season and tournament titles, led the Lions with three shots Tuesday.
"I'm satisfied with her being Co-Player of the Year, because she didn't have a great year," Dodge said of the senior striker who has 11 goals and seven assists this season (29 points, five behind senior forward Kayla Arenas who has 14 goals and six assists). "But [Davidson] was dangerous and she was tough. Everybody knew her and she still was able to be dangerous. The girl is good for three or four great chances a game."
Arenas (one shot Tuesday) and Martin, a forward-midfielder who has 10 goals and 13 assists, were also named all-conference for the Lions, who will attempt on Thursday to avenge two regular-season losses to Westmont.
"We want to beat Westmont so bad," McCutcheon said. "Third time's a charm, right?"
Dodge was more practical.
"[The Warriors (14-0-3), who as the No. 2 seed, had a bye into the semifinals] are better than us," Dodge said. "I don't have a problem saying that. But we are better than Concordia [the No. 1 seed and No. 7-ranked Eagles, who won the program's first conference regular-season crown and takes a 14-0-3 record into Thursday's other semifinal against No. 4-seeded The Master's].
The championship game is scheduled Nov. 15 at the home site of the top remaining seed.