CEDARVILLE, Ohio -- Finishing off a season of surprisingly rapid development, the Azusa Pacific men's cross country team claimed the program's first national championship at any level by edging Roberts Wesleyan by three points to win the National Christian College Athletic Association title.
The women's team, which won last year's NCCAA title, finished second to Roberts Wesleyan and produced four NCCAA All-American performances. Senior Sarah Higgens wrapped up her cross country career as Azusa Pacific's top finisher, placing sixth overall with a time of 18:33.05. Sophomore Reika Kijima, junior Kristie Sikma, and freshman Kylie Betts placed 11th, 12th, and 14th, respectively, all finishing within 10 seconds of each other to claim All-American honors.
The widest separation between top-five finishers from the first- and second-place teams came at the No. 3 spot, where Cougar sophomore Ryan Phillips placed eight scoring spots ahead of Keith Pease, the third finisher from Roberts Wesleyan. Phillips joined junior Peter Buscheck and sophomore Aaron Potts in the top-15 to earn NCCAA All-American recognition.
“It’s been up and down at times this season, and even the past couple of years, so to see them all put it together on the same day and come up with a close victory was pretty special to watch,” Azusa Pacific head coach Preston Grey said. “In my 10 years of coaching at Azusa Pacific, this was one of the best team races I’ve seen our group run.”
Buscheck led the way, registering one of four sub-26:00 individual performances for a fourth-place overall finish. Potts was only three spots back with a time of 26:05.89, picking up a crucial point for his team by edging out the eighth-place finisher by eight-hundredths of a second. Buscheck was one spot behind the top Roberts Wesleyan finisher, while Potts was three places ahead of the Raiders’ second finisher.
After Phillips’ eight-place improvement over Roberts Wesleyan’s third, the Raiders’ fourth and fifth places came in at 24th and 27th place, respectively. That put the pressure on Azusa Pacific’s fourth and fifth spots to both cross the line within the next five scoring spots to have any shot of hanging on for the team championship. Freshman Noah Peña did his part, staying within 2.5 seconds of his target to register the 28th place scoring finish with a season-best time of 26:36.45, and freshman Kyle Bueckert left only one finisher in the three-second gap between himself and Peña to secure the team championship.
The Cougars weren’t completely sure if they had done enough to win until the final results were posted, but the strong finish from the pair of true freshmen provided a slim three-point margin over second-place Roberts Wesleyan.
“We knew we were doing well early, but we didn’t start getting excited until late,” Grey said. “In the last mile, we were able to figure out it was between us and Roberts Wesleyan, so the fight picked up over the last half-mile where both teams knew what was at stake. There was a spot here and there where we caught guys late, and we won just enough of those battles to get that small margin of victory.”
Previously, the best finish at a national championship meet by Azusa Pacific men's cross country, which has posted top-five finishes five times prior to Saturday's championship, was a second-place finish at the 2008 NAIA championships.
“Azusa Pacific is known as a track school, but we’ve also had a lot of success in cross country,” Grey said. “We have had podium finishes in the NAIA, so we do have some history there, and even though it’s been rocky at times the last few years, this group has really dedicated themselves to getting back to where we want to be as a championship program. Today’s performance gives us great momentum going forward.”
The Azusa Pacific women’s team, which won last year’s NCCAA championship with an 80-point total, was actually a point better than its 2012 championship score, registering 79 points in the runner-up finish. The Cougars have now finished in the top-six of its national championship race in seven consecutive seasons.
“We had four All-Americans and lower team score than last year, and even though this wasn’t our best race of the, it was still solid,” Grey said. “I think the team is a little disappointed, but I still think we had a great season. We only have one senior in that group today, and to be right in the hunt even though we didn’t finish on top of the podium was still a good experience for us.”
Outside of the top-four who earned All-American honors, Azusa Pacific’s fifth, sixth, and seventh finishers placed within six spots and seven seconds of each other, led by sophomore Natalie Koskela who came in 41st overall with a time of 19:29.40. Junior Elle Farrar was 44th overall (19:33.73), and junior Elizabeth Lyons placed 46th (19:35.81).
Azusa Pacific is in the final year of its NCAA Division II membership transition. The Cougars, a provisional member this year, will be eligible to qualify for Division II regional and national championship competition next year.