AZUSA, Calif. -- The immediate goals for Azusa Pacific cross country have been clearly laid out by eighth-year head coach Preston Grey. As he leads the Cougars into competition with NCAA Division II programs as a first-year member of the Pacific West Conference, Grey expects his teams to fight for conference titles and compete with the best D-II programs the West region has to offer.
With one eye focused on those immediate challenges of competing at a new level, Grey also has the program focused on its long-term development by stacking the roster full of young runners with great potential. As a program, Azusa Pacific has two years remaining in its three-year transition to full NCAA Division II membership, and Grey’s desire is to elevate the Cougars into a national qualifying-caliber program within that timeframe.
After posting a runner-up finish at last year’s NAIA national championship meet, the Cougar women’s cross country team brings back three of last year’s top-seven from the national meet and welcomes eight newcomers to a 15-member squad. Despite missing all three of its NAIA All-American performers from last season, the Cougars do get back a pair of returners who barely missed the All-American cut and still finished within the top 45 of the 323-competitor championship field.
“You can’t really replace a group of three All-Americans like that overnight,” Grey said. “In Kristie and Sarah, we have two really good runners coming back, but we’re really young behind them. In all likelihood, this will be a growing year for us. We might be a little inconsistent because we have a lot to learn, and even though we have a lot of talent, it is going to take some time to develop it.”
Sophomore Kristie Sikma capped a breakout freshman campaign with a 32nd-place finish at nationals, displaying consistent improvement from meet to meet leading into her strong finish. Still learning how to tap into her potential as a collegiate runner, Sikma should continue to develop into a front-of-the-pack runner along with junior Sarah Higgens, a two-time track & field All-American whose 45th-place nationals finish in cross country capped a solid season of consistent results last fall.
Filling in behind Sikma and Higgens is a young group featuring several freshmen with the potential to consistently break into the top five-to-seven spots along with several other returners with at least a year of collegiate experience under their belt. The returnees include junior Diandra Carstensen, the 2011 NAIA indoor national champion in the 1000 meters who battled injuries during outdoor season in the spring. Carstensen has the ability to be a solid contributor within the Cougars’ top-five, and she continues to develop in the longer distances.
Also back are sophomores Kelsey DeGan, Elle Farrar, Cindy Lopez, and Iliana Velazquez. DeGan and Lopez will likely spend the season focusing on preparation for the track & field season, but Farrar made huge strides last spring and enters the fall well ahead of where she stood as a true freshman a year ago while Velazquez comes off a good summer of training and is expected to continue to make strides towards being a solid contributor.
A talented group of eight new freshmen round out the roster, and the pace of their development into contributors could be the catalyst for Azusa Pacific to make a strong first impression in the program’s first season of PacWest competition. Reika Kijima is a high-potential youngster who could make an instant impact as a top-five contributor while she adjusts to racing collegiately, and Natalie Koskela, Sarah MacIntosh, and Sadie Ringer will all provide solid depth and potentially round out the Cougars’ top-seven in any given week. Melissa Quintero may also join that group by season’s end, along with a trio of newcomers who specialized in other events prior to joining the Cougars.
Megan Crowley took a year off from competing after high school and will spend the year getting back into a regular training mode, and Christina Russell was primarily a 10k runner in track who may need time to adjust to the shorter 5k distance in collegiate cross country. Carly Sasscer’s background includes experience in soccer and track, and she is a candidate to redshirt the season and prepare to compete in the mid-distances during the track & field season in the spring.
The Cougars will be chasing defending conference champion California Baptist, which added several transfers to a group that returns virtually intact from last year’s conference title run. Azusa Pacific expects to see California Baptist in head-to-head competition at several meets, including this weekend’s season opener at UC Irvine.
The men’s program already had a youth-oriented identity beginning last year, and the Cougars’ 2012 makeup continues to focus on the development of a large group of youngsters. Azusa Pacific’s only national championship competitor a year ago has transferred out, but there are 10 athletes in either their first or second year of collegiate experience to go with senior Matt Hoekstra and juniors Zach Ginn and Christian Saylor.
“We really struggled last year, but we’ve taken huge strides since then,” Grey said. “We don’t have that superstar front-runner for the first time since before Aron Rono led us (2006-08). This team mirrors some of those pre-Rono teams, which were really solid and packed well. Those groups won some conference titles and barely missed the podium at nationals, and this team has that same type of DNA and makeup.”
Hoekstra, the lone senior of the entire program and a team captain, wraps up a career that saw him make big improvements throughout, and his experience will help drive the development of the team’s top group throughout the season. Ginn is another captain, and his development last spring running distance events in track & field should carry over into the fall campaign. Saylor’s battles with injuries will likely prevent him from racing in the fall, as he will focus his recovery towards hitting full strength during the track & field season in the spring.
The remainder of the roster includes five sophomores and five freshmen. The sophomore group features Peter Buscheck and Cameron Correa-Henschke, and they’re joined by fellow returnees Devin Pierce and Zach Speno. A year ago, Buscheck was getting back into running after taking a year off, and his level of fitness has significantly improved to where he should post regular top-five finishes in the group. Correa-Henschke has made similar strides since his freshman year, and his improvements have put him into position to also contribute within the top-five. Pierce and Speno have a valuable year of experience under their belt to give the Cougars quality depth throughout the roster. Joey Burke is a sophomore transfer from another NCAA Division II program, Humboldt State, although he is likely to redshirt the season.
The other five newcomers are all freshmen, and they include a trio with impressive credentials at the high school level. Aaron Potts was a state finalist in the mile, and he should be able to provide an immediate contribution. Ryan Phillips battled injuries his senior year of high school after an impressive junior season, and he is another potential top-five contributor as he rounds into form. Sam Baker posted solid marks in high school, where he split time between track & field and water polo, and Jevin Tryon competed in soccer and track & field before college, and he is likely to redshirt this fall. Adding to the depth of the roster is Josh Edel, a hard-working competitor who is likely to contribute down the road while he spends his first year adapting to collegiate running.
Last year’s PacWest championship was also claimed by California Baptist, which also brings back the majority of its title-winning team from a year ago. The rest of the conference race is largely unknown, with several other talented PacWest programs along with Azusa Pacific aiming to close the gap on California Baptist by the end of the season.
The Cougars open the season at UC Irvine for the third straight year, taking part in this year’s event on Saturday, Sept. 8. For the first time since 2005, the Cougars will compete on consecutive Saturdays by participating in the UC Riverside Invitational Sept. 15. From there, the schedule returns to every-other-week, including visits to Stanford (Sept. 29) and Vanguard (Oct. 13) before traveling to Hawai‘i for the 2012 Pacific West Conference championships on Oct. 27. The season concludes with the National Christian College Athletic Association Championships, which are held Nov. 10 in Cedarville, Ohio.