KAHUKU, Hawai‘i -- Azusa Pacific hasn’t wasted any time announcing its presence as a force to be reckoned with in Pacific West Conference cross country, earning a first-place projected women’s finish and second-place men’s projection, as voted by PacWest coaches heading into this weekend’s Pacific West Conference Cross Country Championships at Kahuku Golf Course in Hawai‘i.
The Cougars received 10 of 14 first-place votes for the women’s race to edge to the top of the projection ahead of defending PacWest champion California Baptist, which received three of the other four first-place votes. Point Loma received the other first-place vote and ranks fifth in the PacWest heading into the championship meet.
“The main competition is Grand Canyon and California Baptist,” Azusa Pacific cross country head coach Preston Grey said. “California Baptist has a really good frontrunner, and they really pack up well after that, while Grand Canyon packs really well with a top five that are going to be really close together. We need to get our top five with Grand Canyon’s, and if we do that, we’ll be tough to beat. Our sixth and seventh finishers can displace some others and really make a difference, and we have the potential to have seven all-conference runners.”
On the men’s side, defending conference champion California Baptist was a nearly-unanimous No. 1 selection, picking up 12 of 13 first-place votes. Azusa Pacific was projected to finish second in the men’s championship and lead a tightly-packed trio of challengers which include Grand Canyon (third) and BYU-Hawaii (fourth).
“This will be California Baptist’s race to lose, and for us to even be in the ballpark, we have to run a perfect race,” Grey said. “Everybody has to have their best race of the season to even be in that conversation. I have us sitting third on paper, and if we run really well I think we can be second.”
Sophomore Kristie Sikma is the Cougars’ candidate for Runner of the Year, and she could challenge for the PacWest individual title, which was claimed a year ago by Dixie State’s Rachel Young, who returns to defend her title. Another contender for the individual title is junior Sarah Higgens, who finished within a half-second of Sikma at the Vanguard Invitational two weeks ago. Sikma (17:45.62) and Higgens (17:46.29) both ran sub-18:00 races for the first time in their careers, and both moved into the program’s career top-10 with their performance.
“There are about five individuals with a shot at winning it, and then there’s about a 30-second gap to the rest of the field,” Grey said. “No other school has more than one in that top group like we do, so the key is going to be where we put our three-thru-five in that next group.”
Filling out the Cougar roster for the women’s championship are junior Diandra Carstensen and a freshman quartet of Reika Kijima, Natalie Koskela, Sarah MacIntosh, and Melissa Quintero.
Sophomore Peter Buscheck has been Azusa Pacific’s most consistent men’s finisher, placing first or second on the team in all four races to date ,which have each featured a different No. 1 finisher for the Cougars. Buscheck led the way at the season-opener at UC Irvine, and freshman Aaron Potts was the team leader the next week at UC Riverside. Junior Zach Ginn led the Cougar contingent at the Stanford Invitational (Sept. 29), and freshman Ryan Phillips led the squad two weeks ago at Vanguard.
Joining those four on Azusa Pacific’s men’s championship roster are sophomore Devin Pierce, who ran a career-best 27:02 two weeks ago at Vanguard, along with senior Matt Hoekstra and freshman Sam Baker.
“If it all comes together, we could have a pretty good meet, but we still haven’t had one meet this year where we’ve had five guys clicking on the same day,” Grey said. “We haven’t put that whole group together yet, so we have to have five to six guys run well to have a chance to win it.”
The top 21 finishers in each race will earn All-PacWest honors, with the first, second, and third teams distinguished in groups of seven. More than 100 runners representing all 14 PacWest institutions will compete in Saturday’s conference championship race. The men’s race, which features 13 schools, begins at 8 a.m. local time (11 a.m. Pacific), while the women’s race is set to start an hour later, at 9 a.m. local time (noon Pacific).