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Queens of the Distance

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Published
November 22, 2008
By
Gary Pine
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KENOSHA, Wis. -- There’s a new dish in the cupboard, courtesy of Azusa Pacific women’s cross country.

Led by 4 All-America performances, Azusa Pacific steamrolled a 32-team, 327-athlete field to capture the 2008 NAIA women’s cross country championship during the 29th annual running of the national championship meet today at Wayne E. Dannehl Cross Country Course in chilly Kenosha, Wis. While it’s the Cougars first-ever cross country crown, it is Azusa Pacific’s 31st NAIA national championship, the third most in association history.

“To do something at Azusa Pacific, where the standard is a national championship, and to bring your program up to that level, well that’s pretty cool,” said fourth-year Azusa Pacific distance coach Preston Grey. “It was rather surreal as the race was ending. It was like wow, we really did it.”

The Cougars, who entered the championship meet ranked No. 2 in final NAIA Coaches’ Poll, tallied a mere 66 points, the best winning score in a decade, beating top-ranked Cedarville (Ohio) University, which finished second with 97 points. As it had throughout the entire season, Azusa Pacific ran a strong set of 5 runners and nearly duplicated its school-record showing of 3 weeks ago at the Golden State Athletic Conference championships, which was run in temperatures 50 degrees warmer than today and on a more inviting course.

The Southern California students, however, were not to be denied under any condition, and redeemed a mid-season loss to Cedarville by taking the most important meet of not only the season but also in the history of the program.

“It was a good solid performance,” said Grey. “We competed well, and we did what we’ve been doing all season.”

Despite frigid temperatures in the high 20s, Azusa Pacific clocked a 5-athlete time of 1:28:29, less than half-a-minute off the school-record of 1:28:06 established at the GSAC meet on Nov. 8.

For the second straight year, sophomore Jacky Kipwambok is the NAIA runner-up, leading the Cougar contingent with 17:03 over the 5K course while finishing 20 seconds behind winner Alissa McKaig of Indiana Tech, who blazed a meet record 16:42. Last year’s individual champion, senior Jaime Canterbury was fourth with a season-best 17:10. Senior Renee Graham finished 11th with a 17:44, while fellow senior Becca Reyes clocked an 18:04 to finish 25th overall. All 4 ladies garnered NAIA All-America recognition for placing among the top 30. In 2003, when Azusa Pacific finished sixth, the Cougars registered 3 All-Americans, but never before has an Azusa Pacific team had 4 All-Americans.

“It takes 4 or 5 All-Americans to win a national title in cross country,” added Grey. “If you look back on the history of our program, it seems as if we’ve always been just 1 girl short of contending for the title.”

Even when Azusa Pacific had the best 2 runners in the NAIA, as they did last year with national champ Canterbury and runner-up Kipwambok, the Cougars could manage only a sixth-place finish.

Yet, Azusa Pacific wasn’t missing anyone this year. From the season-opening meet, the NCAA Division I-chocked Aztec Invitational which Azusa Pacific won for the first time ever, the Cougars appeared to be a different team, an elite team that could entertain serious thoughts of a first-ever national championship. The difference-maker between this year’s squad over last year’s was Graham, who left Lamar University last spring and returned to Australia figuring her collegiate career was over.

“I got a phone call last summer from a lady who knew Renee and asked me if I wanted to win a national championship,” recalled Grey. “Well of course I did, but we were saving our last scholarship for a thrower in track, and anyway who was she to think that Renee would make such a difference that we would win the national title. Well she was right.”

This year’s emergence of Reyes was crucial too. The youngest of 5 children, and whose 4 siblings all went to Cedarville including 3 who ran cross country for the Yellow Jackets, Reyes has steadily improved over her 2-year career at Azusa Pacific, capped by an All-American effort in her final cross country race. Only 8 other Cougars in the 29-year history of Azusa Pacific women’s cross country have run a faster 5Ks than Reyes.

Freshman Lauren Jimison, who was slowed earlier in the week by a cold, was strong enough to round out the Cougars’ scoring 5 with an 18:27 that put her in 48th place.

After the first mile of the race, Azusa Pacific had all 5 of its top runners in the top 16 of the race.

“When I saw where we were at the 1-mile marker I thought the national championship was ours if we could hang on,” added Grey. “Becca and Lauren fell back a bit, but when I saw them coming toward the finish, I knew we had it. I ran and jumped into (Cougar women’s track coach Mike) Barnett’s arms and gave him a big bear hug.

“I have some great memories of this course,” Grey went on to say. “It where I broke my school’s (Cornerstone University) cross country record and where I ran in the NAIA championship meet. But this, a national championship, is the best memory of them all.”

Cal State San Marcos was third with 154 points, while Malone College (Ohio) and Milligan University (Tenn.) tied for fourth with 160. Simon Fraser University (B.C.) has its 5-year run atop the NAIA come to end by finishing tenth with 301 points.

“A lot of coaches were saying around here that this was a very strong field, as talented of a field as we’ve seen in a long time,” said Grey. “So it’s not like we snuck in a national title in a down year. We beat a great field, and with just 66 points.”

Not since Simon Fraser won the 1998 championship with an NAIA-record 22 points has the winning score been as low as the Cougars’ was today. In fact, even during SFU’s recent 5-year run as the NAIA champ, the best the Clan scored was a low of 73 points.

Canterbury, the 4-year senior who last year became the first Cougar ever to win an NAIA individual cross country title, closes out arguably the finest career in Azusa Pacific history as a member of the program’s first-ever national championship team.

“Jaime is headed for Azusa Pacific’s and I think the NAIA’s Hall of Fame,” said Grey. “And as great as last year’s individual title was, she was genuinely more excited about the team winning the championship this year.”

Likewise, the greatest male distance runner in Azusa Pacific history closed out his collegiate career in rather dramatic fashion. Senior Aron Rono won the men’s individual race for the second straight year with a season-best 8K time of 23:46, and in the process paced the Cougar men to their finest showing ever at the national meet, finishing second with 118 points. Top-ranked Malone successfully defended its title by winning the meet with 61 points.

Rono ran straight to the front from the opening gun and then steadily pulled away from the 331-man field, winning by 18 seconds over his nearest competitor while clocking the fastest winning time since the 1999 NAIA meet. In addition, he becomes the 13th athlete in 53-year history of the NAIA meet to win back-to-back individual titles, joining the likes of Mike Boit (Eastern New Mexico University), Rick Robirds (Adams State College) and James Bungei (Lubbock Christian University).

“For Aron to run like this at nationals is really impressive,” said Grey. “Yes, he is one of the greatest in NAIA history when you realize he never finished lower than third in 4 NAIA championship meets. And yes, he has won 5 of 6 meets this year, but his races this year weren’t super spectacular as you might expect from him. Until now. This is a great way for him to go out of cross country and into the track & field season.”

Fellow Kenyan Abednego Magut, an All-American last year at Simpson College where he finished 25th in the 2007 NAIA meet, finished third today, the best showing ever by a Cougar other than Rono’s 3 performances. He registered a 24:32, just 1 second off his personal best that he recorded at the GSAC meet 2 weeks ago.

Junior Forrest Lewton fashioned a lifetime best 25:05 to finish 20th and collect his first-ever NAIA All-America honor, joining Magut and Rono on the All-America team. While Azusa Pacific has had 2 All-Americans in the same year (1995 – John Gachao and Angel Martinez), never before has the program had 3 All-Americans.

Senior John Pheil closed out his career with a lifetime best as well, running a 25:36 to finish 47th. Freshman Brandon Dugan completed the Cougars’ scoring 5 with another personal-best at 25:54 to come in 81st.

Azusa Pacific finished with a team-time of 2:04:54, the best time on a legitimate course in Azusa Pacific’s 44-year history of cross country.

“We knew with Aron and Abednego we had a chance to be a podium team (top 4 finish),” said Grey, “but Forrest ran the race of his life, John ended on a great note and Brandon, the freshman, ran a personal best as well. So to have 3 guys drop monster PRs is amazing. You usually don’t have PRs at nationals because of nerves and weather, but our 3, 4 and 5 runners ran out of their minds. Rarely do you get a race where the whole team nails it like we did today.”

With its women’s national championship and men’s runner-up finish, Azusa Pacific won the NAIA team award for compiling the lowest combined score at 184 points (66 women, 118 men). Malone was second at 221 and Indiana Tech was third with 468.

In addition, Grey was named the 2008 NAIA Women’s Cross Country Coach of the Year, the first Cougar coach to be so honored.

“When you consider who has gone before, great coaches like Marvin Mardock, Irv Ray and Bill Reeves, men who have been successful too, it’s pretty humbling to bring the program its first national championship,” said Grey.

Azusa Pacific has now collected NAIA titles in women’s volleyball, women’s soccer, women’s track & field, men’s soccer, men’s track & field, men’s tennis, football and now women’s cross country.

The Cougar cross country teams will be honored at halftime of the Azusa Pacific men’s basketball game vs. California Baptist University, Saturday, Dec. 6.