LAS VEGAS – Air Force became the Western Athletic Conference’s first-ever six-seed to win a tournament title, blanking top-seeded Grand Canyon, 3-0, to win the program’s first WAC tournament championship, Saturday afternoon at Peter Johann Memorial Field.
The Falcons, who scored six-straight unanswered goals since the first round of the tournament, improve to 7-4-1 heading in to the NCAA Tournament for the third time in four seasons. Grand Canyon, who gave up just six goals all season prior to the finals match, finalize their campaign at 8-1. They will await an at large tournament bid announcement on Monday, April 19.
The first strike came in the 43rd minute by way of a set piece serviced by Quinn Matulis who sent a beauty to the far post met by London Aghedo in midair who headed the ball past the league’s top keeper, George Tasouris. The goal marked Aghedo’s second this season while Matulis was credited with his sixth assist.
Just moments after the halftime break, the situation became dire for the undefeated Lopes as Air Force struck for the second time in the 49th minute. In arguably the best piece of individual quality of the tournament, Matulis received a pass from Jake Angeletti and shook his defender from off the top off the box following with a shot off the right foot, bending it up and around the league’s Defensive Player of the Year to the top-left 90. The goal was Matulis’ first of the season and was credited as the Hercules Tires Strong Move of the Game. Angeletti was credited with his first assist of the season.
As Air Force’s offense fired on every cylinder, the Falcon defense walled off an increasingly desperate GCU offense. As the Lopes struggled to find opportunities, the pressure began to mount. Following a red card ejection of Ariel Aguas in the 71st minute, GCU was down a man and struggling to find answers. The cracks in the defense allowed an opportunity for Air Force’s third strike from Lathan Spadafora, who split his defenders and finished to the left side on a weary Tasouris. A yellow card was issued to Spadafora for removing his shirt in celebration.
As head coach Doug Hill got his subs on the pitch, GCU went quietly, giving up their first lost to the underdog Falcons. At the final horn, the Lopes outshot Air Force, 12-8, but the Falcons equaled their shots on target, 5-5.
Kainoa Likewise, who shutout the league’s top two teams in two matches, made five saves on the match. Assisting Likewise in the defensive effort was Aghedo, Max Sole, Jake Chaffetz and Tyler Johnson. The reliable defensive line helped Air Force deliver GCU their first scoreless match all season.
“Our belief in ourselves and our abilities is what got us here,” Hill said. “Back towards the latter half of the season, we told our guys that if they could win three, then they could win three more. We went out and won the last three matches of the regular season and we took that belief into the tournament. The heart and soul of these players, their tenacity, their commitment and just believing, I love the way they played. We got better each game of the tournament.”
“Always believe, don’t give up that hope,” Hill continued. “Once you’re committed to that internal drive and self-belief, good things come. We are one of the hardest working teams in America and I think that showed in this tournament.”
Aghedo, Angeletti, Likewise and Matulis were named to the All-Tournament team highlighted by the Tournament MVP nod for Matulis who finished…