AZUSA, Calif. -- Now he can sit back and relax.
Youthful in his looks, beyond his years in practice, Justin Leslie enters his second season as the head coach at Azusa Pacific with a unique sense of arrival. He made it. He survived his first season as a college coach, and mind you, the coach of not just any program but of one of the nation’s best over the past 15 years. He inherited tradition and along with it the pressure that so commonly intertwines itself with high expectations.
Yet Leslie successfully navigated the brutal waters of the NAIA’s premier basketball conference, the Golden State Athletic Conference, leading Azusa Pacific back from seventh place to eventual runner-up by taking 11 of 12 GSAC games down the stretch, and this from a team that did not return a starter from the prior season. For his effort he was named the GSAC Coach of the Year, the first-ever rookie to be so honored in conference history.
When the postseason arrived, he was poised and thus niftily paced the Cougars back into the "Elite Eight" of the NAIA Tournament for a fourth straight year (only Robert Morris College has equaled the Cougars’ recent postseason march).
When the dust settled on the 2008 season, Leslie could rest on a newfound confidence that comes only from experience. He achieved, and if nothing else, he proved to himself that he is cut out to coach an elite collegiate program.
"I have a much greater perspective of coaching," said Leslie as he reflected on the 2008 season. "I have better feel for how to prepare a team, and I think I’m going to be a better coach throughout the season."
A new season of testing is upon Leslie, and though he is surer of his skills and abilities, the competitor in him won’t allow for easy satisfaction. Upon him now is another season of battle within the GSAC and the NAIA. This time, however, Leslie is armed with coaching experience plus an arsenal of players that should rival any team in the NAIA.
Azusa Pacific returns 9 players from last year’s 24-11 team, including 3 starters that led the Cougars to a 14-6 conference slate and second-place finish in the GSAC. Nearly half the offense is back, and in as reinforcement is a recruiting class that defies the fact that Leslie is only 30 years old, seemingly too young to assemble such a set of newcomers as strong as this year’s class.
Heading Azusa Pacific list of returnees is 6-foot-10 senior David Burgess, an All-GSAC center of last year who averaged 10.7 points and 9.7 rebounds in conference play. He posted 5 double-doubles, all Cougar victories, during a season of resurrection from 3 frustrating campaigns at the NCAA Division I level. His size and strength along with his ability to pass out of the post and negotiate a scheme make him a natural leader for an offense that is expected to vastly improve upon its 76 points per game average of a last year, the lowest output by a Cougar team in 20 years.
Wings Mike Danielian, a 26-game starter in 2008, and Kimarley Williams, the Cougars’ best player off the bench last year, are explosive on offense, Danielian from the 3-point arc and Williams with his ability to run the open court and cut and slash through the key. The junior Danielian, who was second on the team a year ago at 10.7 points a contest, led Azusa Pacific with 66 3-pointers made (fifth in the GSAC) and now has 119 treys in 2 seasons. His consistency to knock down the perimeter shot will be a key in Azusa Pacific’s pursuit of a 14th GSAC title in 17 years. The Cougars were 4-1 in games in which Danielian tallied 20 or more points.
If past patterns of junior college transfers hold true, Williams should fashion an excellent season now that he has year of experience in Azusa Pacific’s offensive scheme. Quick to the basket, Williams is also a good 3-point shooter, though not at prolific as Danielian. He averaged 6.3 points and 4.4 rebounds in 34 games in 2008. His ability to defend on the perimeter makes him a likely candidate to draw nightly defensive assignments on the foe’s top scoring guard or small forward.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a player with a more consistent positive attitude than Kimarley,” said Leslie. “Whether the situation is up or down, he is always coachable. He gives the team message and delivers it well, thus the reason he is a team-captain with Dave Burgess.”
A year ago Mike Caffese was thrown to the wolves, a redshirt freshman pressed into starting at the point as the Cougars’ floor general because of injuries. The season of stress and pressure has resulted in a seasoned Caffese who returns this year with greater understanding and assurance of the Cougar system. A dynamic on-the-ball defender, Caffese will once again press for starting duties with an eye on an improved offensive game.
Like Caffese, fellow redshirt sophomore David Stafford is a vastly improved player for having appeared in 35 games last year, 9 of which he started. Smart and with a knack for making the correct and oftentimes unspectacular play, Stafford can shoot the trey or methodically work his way through the key. Once again, he is a likely to be a key sub off the bench after averaging 4.7 points in that role last year.
One of Leslie’s first signings as a head coach was the bounce-back Burgess, who was in need of time and attention in order to get his collegiate career back on track after a frustrating stay at Division I. Though patience was required to restore Burgess to his potential, the signing paid off with Burgess putting together a strong second half of the season. Leslie went straight back to the formula this summer and brought in another Division I transfer in Brayden Bell, who like Burgess endured abbreviated seasons, first at Ohio State and then at Utah State. The 6-foot-9 Bell teams with Burgess to give Azusa Pacific one of its largest frontlines in more than 30 years. Unlike Burgess, however, Bell excels on the perimeter where he is a good outside shooter and thus creates difficult match-ups for opposing defenses. He can play in the post as well.
“Obviously, we’re much bigger than last year,” said Leslie, “At this level, even one guy like Dave or Brayden makes a huge difference. We’re fortunate to have 2 of them, and teams won’t be able to go against us with a singular defensive focus on Dave and Brayden. We’ll hit you too many other ways.”
No newcomer may have more impact on the team, or perhaps the GSAC for that matter, than junior college transfer Dominique Johnson, an athletic do-everything player who can go from the point to power forward if necessary. Johnson was the 2008 Tennessee junior college co-player of the year at Southwest Tennessee Community College where he averaged 17.6 points in 28 games. An explosive player, Johnson can play above the rim or at the 3-point arc, and at the defensive end he’ll team with Williams and Caffese to give Azusa Pacific 3 outstanding on-the-ball defenders.
"Dave Burgess is the anchor of this team, the piece that makes us go at both ends," said Leslie, "but Dominique scores so easily and quickly that his impact will be significant. He brings the dynamic of easy baskets. He’ll speed up the tempo of the game. He has range beyond the 3-point line. He handles the ball very well. He can finish in the mid-range or he can finish at the rim."
Junior Zane Meehl figured his days of playing basketball in the United States were over when he left NAIA-member Mid-Continent University in Kentucky following the 2008 season. Though he averaged a team-high 14.1 points, the southpaw shooting point guard returned to home in Australia and figured he resume his international career there until a summer call from the Cougars put him on plane back to the United States to continue a collegiate career. The savvy and experienced 22-year old, who played for the New Zealand national team in 2007, figures to press Caffese for a starting berth. He’ll need some time to learn the Cougar system before he can command the offensive scheme.
“We going to be able to play many styles,” said Leslie. “I’d love to run and score 90 points, but the reality is our conference opponents are going to do everything they can to slow us down. This team will score effectively in the post but will be able to shoot well enough that we have success on the perimeter. And we’ll make good decisions off the dribble.”
A potent freshman class, led by Marshall Johnson, figures to bolster the Cougar attack with immediate contributions from the season-opener through the rest of the campaign. A former standout at Palisades High, Johnson is an athletic swingman with a penchant for canning the long shot while making shots from within the key. He is expected to be a key reserve from the outset of the season.
Though not flashy, Mike Meza is a typical Simi Valley (Calif.) High product – smart with great court awareness. His ability to do the right thing at the right moment is likely to get him significant playing time throughout the season.
James Staniland of Ventura High and the younger brother of former Cougar great Jeff Staniland, has an unlimited ceiling when it comes to his future. A natural-born shooter, Staniland is an instant-offense type of player. He is likely to redshirt the season to take advantage of possible physical development that will make him more effective in the seasons to come.
The burly Dakota Richter out of Summerville High in northern California offers muscle and depth around the basket. He needs time to develop but his future as an upperclassman is promising.
Sophomores Caleb Burgess and Justin Sapp are marvelous long-range shooters who can score points in a hurry. Their time on the court, however, will be determined by their ability to executive plays and play defense.
Returning sophomores Ashton Roberts and David Gantt round out the Cougars’ 16-player roster. Roberts gave a yeoman-like effort last year when the Cougars’ 3 point guards went down with early-season injuries, forcing him to give up his redshirt and fill a key role in the early months of the season. An improved shooter, Roberts’ quickness and ability to run the offense will give him opportunities to play as a sophomore. Gantt is a terrific team player with a knack for blocking shots. His ability to show improvement on the block will determine his playing time.
Azusa Pacific, which opens the season ranked No. 17 in the NAIA Coaches Preseason Poll, has been picked to finish third in the GSAC behind California Baptist University and Concordia University, both of which advanced to the NAIA Tournament last year along with Azusa Pacific.
“I think the coaches call is a rather accurate reflection of where we should be to open the season,” added Leslie. “Cal Baptist is returning more players, and they are rightly deserving of being picked to win the conference. They have the conference player of the year coming back. Concordia has won the conference 2 years in a row, so they’ve earned consideration to be either the favorite or No. 2 team in the conference”.
Azusa Pacific’s 30-game schedule features several intriguing nonconference games, including the resumption of longtime rivalries with Grand Canyon University, which the Cougars haven’t played since 1981, and neighboring University of La Verne, which last played Azusa Pacific 18 years ago. In addition, the Cougars play 2 nonconference games against the University of Montana-Western, first at a neutral site in Salt Lake City and then at home in late December. National powers Westminster College, Cal State San Bernardino and Trevecca Nazarene University will test the Cougars’ metal in preparation for the rigors of GSAC play, which begins with a monumental game at home against the NAIA’s No. 5-ranked California Baptist. After an always challenging visit to The Master’s College, the Cougars resume GSAC play at the turn of the year with 2 key road contest at defending GSAC champ Concordia and arch-rival Biola University.
“Talent-wise, this team reminds me of the 2001 and 2006 Cougar teams,” said Leslie. “The depth is quite comparable. Leadership was a key factor for both those teams, and it will be for this team as well. We have the skill to score 50 points and win games or if necessary to score 50 and still win. Offensively and defensively, we could be quite good, and I expect us to compete for a conference championship.”