FRESNO, Calif. – In a near repeat performance of the conference championship meet 2 weeks, Azusa Pacific came back to take 3 of the 4 jewels at the NAIA Region II Cross Country Championship Meet at Woodward Park in Fresno, with the Cougar women capturing the team title while Jacky Kipwambok won the women’s individual championship and Aron Rono took the men’s crown.
The Azusa Pacific women, ranked No. 3 in the NAIA, ran away from the 12 team field, tallying a team low 57 points to lay claim on its first regional championship since 2003 and earn an automatic berth to the NAIA Championship Meet in 2 weeks in Kenosha, Wis.
Like she did at the Golden State Athletic Conference meet in Costa Mesa, Kipwambok teamed with All-American Jaime Canterbury to run side-by-side and ahead of the pack throughout the entire race. Kipwambok pulled away late win to clock a 17:26 over the 5K course, while Canterbury was second with a 17:48, finishing 10 seconds ahead of third-place Kristin Schmidt of Biola University.
The Cougars finished 17 points ahead of second-place Cal State San Marcos and the real difference came with Azusa Pacific’s next 3 runners – junior Rebecca Reyes, senior Olivia Richert and freshman Kayla Carstensen -- who ran in a tight pack and were just a minute, 44 seconds behind Kipwambok. As a result, the Cougars’ scoring five teamed for a school-record 1:31:32, breaking the former 5-runner program best of 1:31:49 set at the 2000 GSAC Championship Meet.
“What a great race,” said an overjoyed Preston Grey, the Cougars’ third-year distance coach. “If we run this type of race with this kind of gap between one and five at the NAIAs, then we’ll be a podium team (top 4 finish).”
Azusa Pacific had 5 runners under 19:30, including Carstensen who ran a PR by more than 30 seconds, clocking a 19:10. Reyes finished with an 18:28 while Richert registered an 18:40, both season-best efforts.
“Kayla really stepped up and sealed the deal for us,” said Grey, who was named the NAIA Region II Women’s Coach of the Year. “We’ve been searching for a strong No. 5 runner, and her workouts have been there recently, just waiting for her to put it together in a big race like this.”
For the second straight championship meet, the Cougar men finished second, however this time trailing Cal State San Marcos, which won its first-ever regional title. Two weeks ago, Concordia narrowly edged Azusa Pacific by a point to win the GSAC crown. The Cougars put together a strategy to beat Concordia at regionals and it worked. What they didn’t plan on was San Marcos’ Sean Brosnan, a transfer from Concordia who hadn’t been able to run for San Marcos all season but debuted today at regionals, running a 25:31 to finish 13th.
“Brosnan was the difference,” said Grey. “Had he not been there, I think we would have been able sweep all 4 championships – both team titles and the individual ones. But it would have been close, just as it was with Concordia.”
Cal State San Marcos won the men’s team crown with 65 points. Azusa Pacific was second with 91 while GSAC champ Concordia was third with 93.
For the second straight year, Rono won the regional individual title with a 23:51, 4 seconds off his meet and course record set last year.
“Aron was smooth and easy today, just cruising,” said Grey. “He really didn’t attack the race, which is fine because it allows him to be fresh in 2 weeks for nationals.”
Though he didn’t score, freshman Travis Fernandes was the Cougar who pulled off the best move of the day for Azusa Pacific. Over the final 400 meters, Fernandes tracked down Concordia’s Axel Ambriz and Guillermo Cazares, to displace them each 1 spot, a difference of 2 points and the difference in team scoring between Azusa Pacific and Concordia.
“The was pretty neat to see Travis pull that off,” said Grey. “Though he was our No. 6 runner and didn’t score, he was just as significant as any of our runners.”
Azusa Pacific came into the meet ranked No. 6 in the NAIA and is expected to receive an at-large berth into the NAIA Championship Meet when the championship meet field is announced from the national office in Kansas City, Mo., Sunday (Nov. 4). The NAIA Championships are scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 17.