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Cross Country's New Landscape

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Published
August 24, 2010
By
Gary Pine

AZUSA, Calif. – “Azusa Pacific-Biola”

The mere mention of those 2 schools back-to-back harkens one to the thought of rivalry. It’s only natural given the history of contests between the 2 athletic programs over the past 20 years. Oftentimes those thoughts center on a basketball court. Maybe images of a soccer pitch flutter into the mind, or a baseball diamond. A volleyball court has been the site of some entertaining Azusa Pacific-Biola matches.

It appears now the rivalry will expand, head into new territory where one thought it could never go, would never go – cross country.

Perhaps it’s a sport that doesn’t necessarily fire up the passions of the faithful, yet it requires no stretch of the imagination to figure that the 2010 NAIA women’s cross country championship may come down to Azusa Pacific and Biola. There’s a new landscape developing in this rivalry, and it really does involve grass, dirt, hills and trees.

To no one’s surprise, Azusa Pacific, which won the 2008 national crown and has finished in the NAIA’s Top Ten 9 of the past 10, is among this year’s elite pressing for yet another NAIA crown. It’s Biola, an unheard of program until last year, which has everyone raising their eyebrows when the talk turns to this year’s national championship hopes. The Eagles used to be a doormat in cross country, but last year they shocked everyone, including reigning GSAC champ Azusa Pacific, when they finished second at the NAIA championship meet and narrowly missed capturing the school’s first-ever NAIA crown. And now the Eagles enter the 2010 season ranked No. 1 in the NAIA Coaches Preseason Poll.

“Trust me, Biola is good, and they have all top 7 of their runners back from last year’s team,” said Azusa Pacific head coach Preston Grey. “They are the team to beat.”

The Cougars have their own talent as well, as represented by their No. 4 ranking in the NAIA Preseason Poll.

Azusa Pacific returns 4 of its top 5 runners from last year’s team that was ranked No. 1 in the NAIA throughout the campaign and eventually finished fifth at the NAIA championship meet in Vancouver, Wash. All-American Jacky Kipwambok, the 3-time NAIA national runner-up, is sitting out the year and will return to the Cougars in the fall of 2011; and while her absence is certainly a knee-buckler in the Cougars’ pursuit of another NAIA championship, there is plenty of talent and depth to qualify Azusa Pacific as a serious title contender.

All-American Lauren Jimison, a junior who is coming off an outstanding 2009 season, takes over the mantle of leadership in Kipwambok’s absence, and there may not be any misstep in the exchange. In 2 short years on the college level, the 20-year old Jimison has clearly established herself as one of the NAIA’s best distance runners. She finished seventh at last year’s NAIA meet and is coming off a track & field season in which she was the NAIA runner-up in both the 5000- and 10,000-meters.

“Lauren’s great talent is that she can handle an inordinate amount of training workloads,” said Grey. “She is amazingly strong. She’ll rarely win a kicker’s race, but she can and will run away from fields this year.”

Jimison has a lifetime best of 17:22 in the 5K and only Kipwambok and former NAIA champion Jaime Canterbury have run better times in Azusa Pacific history.

“I believe Lauren is one of the top 2 distance runners in the NAIA this year,” said Grey. “She has a chance to eclipse the times of Jacky and Jaime.

In near-exact step-by-step following, sophomore Poppy Lawman seems to be running the same path of development that Jimison employed. Lawman was the surprise of the GSAC last year, finishing as the top freshman in the conference meet with a fourth-place showing (17:59). Twice she clocked a 5K season-best of 17:47 to move into Azusa Pacific’s all-time top ten in her first year on the college level.

Senior captain < b>Victoria Martinez was enjoying a marvelous 2009 season until the week of the NAIA Championship Meet when a stomach virus slowed her performance. An All-America track & field season, in which she finished fourth in the NAIA 1500, offset the disappointment of the NAIA cross country meet and renewed her confidence for this coming campaign. Martinez recorded a pair of sub-18s last year, including a career-best 17:29, the fifth-best time in school history. Now at full strength and with a good base of summer training to support her, Martinez will press for All-America recognition.

“In my opinion, our 1-2-3 runners are as good as anyone in the NAIA,” said Grey. “I’ll put them up against anyone. Jimison, Lawman and Martinez are very talented and all have NAIA experience. They are the core of who we are this season.”

Now the rubber meets the road. Who fills the spots as Azusa Pacific’s Nos. 4 and 5 runners is vital in the Cougars’ pursuit of GSAC and NAIA titles, both of which have Biola as obstacles on the course.

Returning senior Kayla Carstensen has plenty of NAIA championship meet experience, having run in the past 3, and at times last year she displayed flashes of All-America-like running, clocking a couple of sub-18s. Her experience and continued development make her a likely candidate to run at No. 4 this year, and Grey hopes that she can consistently run in the 17s.

A pair of well-regarded rookies will vie for the No. 5 slot. Freshmen Diandre Carstensen, Kayla’s younger sister, and Melissa Telon, who was highly-recruited throughout the GSAC, are key in Azusa Pacific’s aspirations for 2010.

“Both Diandre and Melissa have the potential to develop into All-Americans in a year or 2,” said Grey, “and we need both of them to play big roles this year.”

Returnees Megan Knippenburg and Emma DeLira give the Cougars some depth and will compete to run in the top 7.

Junior Candice Chessum returns to cross country after a year off and will use the season to primarily train for track’s 800 meters. Freshmen Annie Venable, Kelsey Seaman and Anna Hoyt are in a developmental stage of their distance running and will use the season to adjust to college competition.

“We’re not very deep, and it won’t be easy, but we can win the NAIA championship,” said Grey. “We’re that good, but so too is Biola. I think Simon Fraser and Cal State San Marcos will be in that mix as well. We can be a 100-point team but a lot will depend on how our 4-5 runners develop throughout the year.”

Azusa Pacific will get an idea of where it stands right out of the gate. The Cougars and Biola go head-to-head in several meets this season, including the season opener at the UC Irvine Invitational, Sept. 11.

The Cougar men had a string of 7 consecutive NAIA meet appearances snapped with last year’s absence, but Grey believes they have the strength to return this fall, and so do the raters who placed Azusa Pacific No. 23 in the NAIA Coaches’ Preseason Poll.

“We’re a lot deeper in talent and there’s a hunger on this team to get back,” said Grey. “A lot will depend on our freshmen because we are young, but it’s a realistic goal to shoot for an NAIA berth.”

The Cougars return 5 runners from last year’s team that finished third in the GSAC, and heading the list is 2-time All-American and reigning GSAC champion Abednego Magut. The senior from Kenya, who ran the second-fastest 8K in school history with a 23:49 8K last year, is coming off a stress fracture at the close of the track season which limited his summer training.

Fellow senior J.J. Timphony, the most experienced Cougar on the roster, individually qualified for the NAIA championships last year after finishing fifth at GSACs with a 25:51. He teams with Magut to give Azusa Pacific a solid set of leaders

Freshman Wade Meddles is a “program-changer” and the primary reason the Cougars expect to return to the NAIAs this year. At Sierra Lutheran High last year, Meddles established himself as one of the 5 best high school cross country runners in the nation, finishing third at the Foot Locker Nationals and second at the Foot Locker West Regionals.

“We haven’t had a recruit like Wade in our track & field program since the days of Bryan Clay,” said Grey. “He is a strong and competitive runner, not afraid of anyone. I’m sure he’ll step up right away and be one of the best in the NAIA this year.”

Much like the women’s team, the Cougar men have a solid set of 3 to lead the pack. It’s the rest of the runners who will determine the team’s fortune.

Sophomore Anthony Lacambra is looking to bounce back from what he considered a sub-par debut season last year. Lacambra has a good high school history behind him that should translate into quality college career. If he develops as hoped for, he could be a terrific No. 4 runner for the Cougars.

After Meddles, freshman Paul Castro, from state power Orange (Calif.) Lutheran High, is the next best newcomer and a likely competitor to run among the Cougars’ top 5. Fellow freshman Paul Balderas has “untapped potential” according to Grey, who has a reputation for developing such athletes and getting the most out of them. Balderas could emerge as a significant runner as the season and his career unfolds.

The mentally-tough Spencer Winston is back for a third year of Cougar cross country. Winston is coming off his best track & field season in which he qualified for the NAIA steeplechase. His leadership and competitiveness will be valued assets on a relatively young team.

Track All-American Montrail Brooks returns to cross country after sitting out last year and will use the competition as preparation for running the 800-meters in the spring.

Sophomore Matt Hoekstra who was added the program midway through last season, joins freshmen Jordan LindstromM, Christian Saylor and Ryan Solis to round out the 11-man roster.

"We have the ability to return to NAIA this year,” said Grey of the men’s team. “We’re much deeper than last year but we have a lot of questions marks because we’re so young. Our top goal is to win GSAC, return to nationals, and run better than our ranking."