CEDARVILLE, Ohio -- For the second consecutive competition, Azusa Pacific’s cross country teams approach a meet with sights set on claiming a championship. Two weeks ago, it was the Pacific West Conference crown the Cougars had their eye on, and this week their focus is on a national title.
The Cougars were successful in their bid to claim Azusa Pacific’s first-ever Pacific West Conference title in the school’s first season of competition in its new conference, and Saturday’s National Christian College Athletic Association Championships hosted by Cedarville (Ohio) University presents the program with an opportunity for another first-time championship trophy in a meet it’s never before competed in.
“It’s a championship race, and we pride ourselves on running well in championship races,” said Cougar head coach Preston Grey, who was named the Pacific West Conference Women’s Cross Country Coach of the Year after guiding Azusa Pacific to a conference title for the ninth time in the past 12 years. “We have a great tradition in that respect, and we hope to continue it. This meet gives us another opportunity this year to compete for a championship.”
The women’s team is led by a group of five runners who ran All-PacWest performances in hot, humid conditions in the conference championship meet held Oct. 27 on the island of O‘ahu. Junior Sarah Higgens led the way as the Cougars’ lone all-conference first team representative, placing sixth overall with a time of 18:43.20.
Sophomore Peter Buscheck leads Azusa Pacific’s men’s team, which claimed fourth at the PacWest meet behind Buscheck’s All-PacWest second-team effort. Buscheck was the Cougars’ most consistent men’s finisher, placing first or second on the team in all five races to date.
Higgens, along with sophomore Kristie Sikma, both recorded career-best sub-18:00 times earlier in October at the Vanguard Invitational, as both moved into Azusa Pacific’s career top-ten. Sikma was the Cougars’ top finisher in each of the first four races of the season, but she struggled to even make the starting line in Hawai‘i after battling flu-like symptoms throughout the PacWest championship week leading up to the race. She gutted out a ninth-place finish, good enough for All-PacWest second team honors, and she was joined on the second team by freshman Sarah MacIntosh, who ran a 19:34 that netted a 13th-place finish.
“I expect us to improve on what we did, and I expect us to have our best race of the season,” Grey said. “It will be completely different conditions, going from Hawai‘i to the Midwest, and there’s a lot of new variables because there will be much different conditions than what we’re accustomed to. It will be nice to have Kristie healthy to give her a chance at redemption from the PacWest race.”
Filling out the championship roster for the women’s team are All-PacWest third team recipients, junior Diandra Carstensen and freshman Natalie Koskela. They’ll be joined by two other freshmen: Reika Kijima and Christina Russell.
The Cougar men’s team featured four different No. 1 finishers in its four regular-season races. Buscheck led the way at the season-opener at UC Irvine before he repeated the team-leader status at the PacWest meet. Other top finishers this season have been freshman Aaron Potts at UC Riverside, junior Zach Ginn at Stanford, and freshman Ryan Phillips at Vanguard. Azusa Pacific’s championship roster is identical to its PacWest contingent, with sophomore Devin Pierce, senior Matt Hoekstra, and freshman Sam Baker filling out the squad.
“A lot of it is just about competing, because I’m not sure what place I should expect,” Grey said. “I’d like to see tighter gap splits, along with the same or better intensity that we had at PacWest, so that we can see improvement in our championship racing.”
Cedarville University serves as the host of the 2012 NCCAA Cross Country Championships. The 32nd annual women’s championship begins at 10:00 a.m. local time (7:00 a.m. Pacific), while the 40th annual men’s championship is set to start at 10:45 a.m. local time (7:45 a.m. Pacific). Both races take place at Cedarville’s Elvin R. King Cross Country Course.
Full meet information can be found here: Cedarville Athletics