AZUSA, Calif. -- One of the deepest teams in Azusa Pacific cross country history hits the ground running on the 2011 season at this weekend’s UC Irvine Invitational. Twenty-seven student-athletes are competing under the Cougars’ cross country umbrella this fall, with 13 members comprising the women’s team that seeks a return to the upper echelon of NAIA cross country while the 14-member men’s team has 10 newcomers who hope to repeat a national team appearance later this fall.
The Azusa Pacific women are ranked No. 2 in the NAIA preseason poll, following a sixth-place finish at the national meet last season, while the Cougar men are receiving votes in the poll while residing just outside the cutoff for the NAIA’s top 25.
“We expected the women to be ranked where they are, because it’s a very good group returning,” Cougar cross country coach Preston Grey said. “It’s going to be the same story as the last couple years – we’ve come up a little bit short at the end, and we know that we can correct some of the mistakes we’ve made. Our biggest disappointment is not having our best race at nationals.”
Leading the way for the women’s team is senior Lauren Jimison, a top-five individual finisher at last year’s national meet and the No. 2 finisher among team scorers who could quite possibly end up making a run at becoming just the second individual champion in program history for the Cougars. Jimison ran a 17:53 at the 2010 national meet, nearly 30 seconds better than her seventh-place finish as a 2009 sophomore on the same course at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site in Vancouver, Wash.
Another key is the continued development of junior Poppy Lawman, an NAIA All-American finisher who turned in the Cougars’ third-fastest time in last year’s national meet.
“Championships are won with superstars up front, and we feel like we have that,” Grey said. “With Lauren and Poppy, we think that we have as good of a one-two punch as anyone in the country.”
Other key returners for the Cougars include sophomore Melissa Telon, the team’s No. 4 finisher in her first career national meet. Telon is joined by senior Jacky Kipwambok, who placed second at the 2009 NAIA meet and returns after a one-year layoff from competitive running. Junior Megan Knippenberg and sophomore Diandra Carstensen each ran in the Cougars’ seven-member national-team contingent, and Kristie Sikma and Kelsey Degan are also solid runners capable of making an impact at the national meet.
A contingent of five newcomers is highlighted by junior Sarah Higgens, a transfer from NCAA Div. I New Mexico State. During her prep career, Higgens was the Indiana single-division individual state champion. Four true freshmen (Cindy Lopez, Elle Farrar, Diana Wallace, and Iliana Velazquez) round out the roster of 13 and could wind up contributing during the year based on how quickly they can adapt to the collegiate training regimen.
“The key is going to be how we put things in place to allow us to have our best race of the year at nationals,” Grey said. “We’re a young team, and I think the size of the roster is a great thing because it will continue to add depth and set the foundation for the next generation of Azusa Pacific cross country.”
The West coast dominates the top of the preseason rankings, with defending national champion Cal State San Marcos leading the way in the top spot. Biola checks in a spot behind the Cougars at No. 3, while Southern Oregon (No. 4) and College of Idaho (No. 5) round out the top five. Olivet Nazarene (Ill.) is the only school east of the Rockies that ranks among the NAIA’s top eight, and Azusa Pacific will see Olivet Nazarene at the Oct. 22 Great Lakes Invitational in Grand Rapids, Mich.
On the men’s side, only four of the 14 athletes on the roster have any past experience with Azusa Pacific cross country prior to the fall training camp this year. The ten newcomers will provide a competitive atmosphere within the squad, which could help push Azusa Pacific into the Top 25 and closer towards a team berth in the national meet for the second consecutive season.
“Usually you have a good idea what your team will be able to do, but this team is a total shot in the dark,” Grey said. “We need our youth to develop and have guys who recognize the need to step up and take their performance to the next level.”
Sophomore Wade Meddles is the Cougars’ top returnee, a 2010 NAIA All-American honoree as a true freshman last year, and he could improve on his 29th-place finish from a year ago as he moves into his second year of development as a collegiate runner.
“There will be rough spots along the way, and the learning curve will be huge,” Grey said. “How we respond to the inevitable setbacks we will face will determine just how well we can do. We have our star with Wade, we just don’t know who is going to step up behind him.”
The only other returnee with national-meet experience is junior Anthony Lacambra, and he is joined by junior Matt Hoekstraand sophomore Christian Saylor, who have both put in the work to develop as runners and move into a more impactful role in 2011.
A transfer from Concordia (Ore.), sophomore Zach Ginn should help provide a veteran anchor for the team. Each of the other nine newcomers will compete over the season to move into a top-seven finish nationals and contribute points towards the team portion of the competition.
“This group has confidence and a little swagger, and they’re very determined,” Grey said. “They have big goals, both individually and as a group, and we’re trying to mold that spirit into a positive thing for our team.”
The 2011 season opens when both Azusa Pacific cross country squads compete in Saturday’s UC Irvine Invitational. Other competitions the Cougars are scheduled to compete in include the Sept. 24 Stanford Invitational, the Oct. 8 Vanguard Invitational, as well as the aforementioned Great Lakes Invitational in Grand Rapids, Mich. Fresno is once again the host site of the GSAC meet, which is held Nov. 5, and the national meet takes place two weeks later at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site in Portland, Ore.