Copy machines make it look easy, but any coach will tell you that duplicating is much more difficult than today’s technology would like to suggest. Just ask Azusa Pacific’s Preston Grey.
Last year’s NAIA Women’s Cross Country Coach of the Year, Grey knows his Cougars will be hard-pressed to repeat last year’s performances which resulted in the greatest seasons in Azusa Pacific men’s and women’s cross country history. The women captured the program’s first-ever NAIA national championship while the men were the national runner-up. And while a strong core of quality runners return to keep Azusa Pacific among this year’s elite teams, both squads lost major players, and replacing them with efforts that at best may be poor facsimiles will be a trying task as well.
Gone from the men’s team is arguably the greatest distance runner in NAIA history, Aron Rono, a 2-time NAIA individual champion who never finished lower than third in 4 NAIA Championship Meet appearances. On the women’s side, 3-time NAIA All-American and former NAIA champion Jaime Canterbury has graduated as well, and like Rono, has embarked a professional running career.
As Rono and Canterbury now blaze their own trails, still remaining in the Cougar fold are a set of runners who can certainly carry on the tradition of quality performance, if not national championship efforts, particularly on the women’s side.
“I think we’re 2 years away from contending for the women’s national championship again,” said Grey, now in his fifth year at the helm of Cougar distance running. “We don’t have a senior, so we’re still relatively young. I don’t know if we’ll be able to make a legitimate run at the national title this November, but if we continue on this path then in 2 years we will have such a team.”
Though the Cougars return only 1 of their top 4 runners of last year, Grey isn’t about to concede anything for the 2009 campaign, not when he has 2-time NAIA runner-up Jacky Kipwambok leading the parade. Primed to emerge as the NAIA’s top female distance runner this year, Kipwambok has won 6 of the past 9 collegiate cross country meets she has entered (she finished second in the other 3), including the last 2 Golden State Athletic Conference championship meets. She is the only person in program history to run a sub-17-minute 5K, clocking the school-record at 16:57 while winning last year’s Aquinas Invitational in Grand Rapids, Mich.
“Jacky is as good as anybody in the country,” said Grey. “Her winning the 5000 and 10,000 at last year’s NAIA outdoor track championships gave her a ton of confidence. However, the way the team is going to improve is not by Jacky. All she can improve by is 1 point, going from second to first. Our improvement is going to come from the 2 through 5 girls. Jacky will be the steady force up front.”
So following in Kipwambok’s footsteps are stable-full of good runners who competed in the shadows of All-Americans last year but who now have to emerge onto the scene.
Heading the list is junior Victoria Martinez, a highly-touted runner coming out of high school who has endured 2 injury-plagued seasons thus far. Grey believes that with a clean bill of health and strong summer of training under her belt, Martinez will “surprise” the competition this year.
Sophomore Lauren Jimison, a track All-American who finished 48th at last year’s NAIA Cross Country Championships as a collegiate rookie, rounds out a very solid 3 runners for Azusa Pacific. Jimison clocked a personal-best 18:09 to earn All-GSAC honors last year and could prove to be among the conference’s 5 best runners this year.
The battle to be among the Cougars’ scoring 5 will be intense. Juniors Kayla Carstensen and Emma DeLira along with senior Stephanie Godfrey and freshman Poppy Lawman are vying for the final 2 scoring slots.
Like Martinez, Carstensen is coming off a summer of strong training, and combined with experience that comes from 12 meet competitions the past 2 years, she has the capability to fill a key line-up vacancy.
Godfrey is a determined and competitive runner with NAIA track championship experience in the 10,000 and marathon. DeLira and Lawman are newcomers with promise, particularly Lawman, who at the age of 18 still has a high ceiling.
“Poppy has tons of speed and she can handle the volume, so she represents both spectrums needed for a great distance runner,” said Grey. “She has a great stride and turnover. I’m really excited about her future.”
Freshmen Megan Knippenberg, Abbie Newlin and Cassie Wicoff round out the Cougars’ 10-athlete roster. The trio will use the 2009 season as a developmental year as they adjust to college competition.
Azusa Pacific is the 2-time defending GSAC champion and is expected make a run at a third crown. Yet, Grey believes this could be the most competitive race for the conference crown in several years.
“We can win the GSAC, but it will be difficult. Biola will be coming into its own. Point Loma had outstanding recruiting class, and Concordia returns their top 3 runners, and outside of us, they had the top 3 runners in the country last year. It should be a great conference meet this year”
The GSAC is considered the top distance-running conference in the NAIA, and its premier teams are expected to show well at the NAIA meet. A high finish at GSACs could translate into a strong showing at the NAIAs.
“I think we can be a podium team at nationals,” said Grey. “We’re still talented and strong, and if our depth can improve during the season, we can be pretty good.”
Like the women, the Cougar men are strong at the top of their line-up, returning All-Americans Abednego Magut and Forrest Lewton.
Magut, now a junior, finished third at last year’s NAIA championship meet, the second-best showing ever by a Cougar behind Rono’s 2 individual titles. He registered an 8K career-best of 24:31 to finish second at the GSAC meet last year and follow that 2 weeks later with a 24:32 in frigid conditions at the NAIAs.
“Abednego was very raw when he got here, but he is much improved,” said Grey. “He knows what he is doing now. He’s not scared of anything, and he is strong.”
Lewton, who is a senior, is coming off a breakout 2008 season in which he finished 20th at NAIAs with a 25:05, more than 30 second better than his previous career best. A steeplechaser by trade in track & field, Lewton is a strong runner who will need to be consistent in his effort each meet.
“To be honest, we need Forrest running with the best runner of each GSAC school,” added Grey. “We don’t have as much depth as the other teams, so in order to stay with the best teams, we’ll need our No. 2 running with everyone else’s No. 1 while Magut maintains the lead.”
Behind Magut and Lewton is an open competition on the Cougar ladder. Junior J.J. Timphony is the most experienced and qualified Cougar to make a run at No. 3, but freshman Anthony Lacambra is a talented newcomer, who with time and collegiate experience could develop into an outstanding distance runner for years to come.
Redshirt sophomore Spencer Winston has an open door before him to move into the Cougars’ scoring 5.
“The big challenge for Timphony and Winston will be to transfer their workouts into meet competition,” added Grey. “We have to have Timphony run in the same neighborhood with Lewton, and he can do it because of his talent.”
Senior Garrett Zambrows could greatly boost the team depth if he can get healthy and be fit by the time the conference meet rolls around. The former USA Junior National competitor in the 800 is a gifted distance runner, who has been slowed by injuries. If available by late October, he could emerge as the Cougars’ No. 4 and make Azusa Pacific much stronger at No. 5.
Freshman Joe Lopez and Sam Reinhart complete the Cougars’ 8-man roster. Reinhart comes out of a strong Orange Lutheran High program where he ran 3 seasons of cross country, while Lopez is relatively new to the sport but has the potential to develop into a quality runner.
“I think we could be among 1 of the top 15 teams in the nation this year, but it will be hard just to get out of the GSAC this year,” said Grey. “This is as deep as I’ve ever seen the GSAC. It may not be as good at the top as it has been in other years, but top to bottom this may be as competitive as the GSAC has ever been.”
The Cougars continue the 2009 season Saturday (Sept. 19) at the UC Riverside Invitational. The women’s race starts at 7:30 a.m. followed by the men’s at 8:15. The races will be staged on the UCR Agricultural Operations Course, located on the corner of Martin Luther King Blvd., and Canyon Crest Drive in Riverside.