CEDARVILLE, Ohio -- Azusa Pacific wasn’t sure what to expect out of its first-ever National Christian College Athletic Association Cross Country National Championship meet, but the Cougars put the finishing touches on a successful season by claiming the women’s national title and posting a sixth-place men’s finish Saturday morning at Cedarville University.
The national championship is the second claimed by Azusa Pacific’s women’s cross country team, joining the 2008 NAIA title in the Cougar trophy case, and it’s the 43rd national championship for the Azusa Pacific athletics program. The winning margin was 22 points, with the Cougars tallying 80 points to finish ahead of four other tightly-packed teams in the top five. Roberts Wesleyan was closest, registering 102 points for second place, and Malone, California Baptist, and Dallas Baptist rounded out the top-five with 110, 121, and 130 points, respectively.
“We knew we had a shot at winning it. There were a lot of unknowns, but we knew we’d be in the hunt somewhere,” Cougar head coach Preston Grey said. “The women’s team probably ran its best race of the season, and to do that in the last meet of the season is always the goal.”
Just as they have all season, sophomore Kristie Sikma and junior Sarah Higgens led the way, with both earning NCCAA All-American honors by virtue of placing among the top 15 individual finishers. Sikma, who was slowed two weeks ago and almost couldn’t even participate in the Pacific West Conference championships due to flu-like symptoms, was back to full health for Saturday’s NCCAA championship, and it showed. She placed fourth overall, nearly cracking the 18-minute threshold for the second time in her past three races but crossing the line in 18:01.23. She edged ahead of fifth-place finisher Rachel Prutsman of Roberts Wesleyan University by less than a second.
“Kristie ran great,” Grey said. “This was her second-fastest time of the year on a course that’s not particularly fast.”
Higgens was ninth overall with a time of 18:25.95, missing out on the eighth spot by just three-hundredths of a second.
“This is what we expected of Sarah when we brought her in two years ago,” Grey said. “She was a state high school champion in Indiana, and she ran with a quality NCAA Division I program (New Mexico) before transferring here. We knew we would get someone who was going to perform in big meets and step up when we needed her.”
The Cougars’ next three finishers packed together within the top-25, starting with freshman Natalie Koskela placing 20th overall in exactly 19 minutes. Just five seconds and two other runners separated Koskela from teammates Reika Kijima (23rd, 19:05.53) and Sarah MacIntosh (24th, 19:07.95). Junior Diandra Carstensen finished 41st overall (19:33.30), and freshman Christina Russell took 54th individually (19:51.51) in the 255-runner field.
“Our third, fourth, and fifth finishers today were all freshmen, so to see them step up in this situation was really nice,” Grey said. “This meet was definitely a great way to end this year, and it’s great to see that they’re learning how to win championship races.”
The men’s team, competing in a national championship meet for just the second time since 2008, took sixth place overall with sophomore Peter Buscheck leading the way for the second straight race. Buscheck finished in 26:23.12, which placed 22nd overall and left him less than 15 seconds outside the NCCAA All-American cutoff. Freshman Aaron Potts was the next Cougar finisher, placing 35th overall with a time of 26:43.68, and freshman Ryan Phillips was 10 spots behind him after clocking a 26:56.05.
“We definitely competed as well as we’ve competed all year,” Grey said. “We’ve had problems finishing races this year, but I think we actually raced the last mile this time, moving up and finishing strong. We definitely turned a corner there and took a great step in the right direction.”
Junior Zach Ginn finished 80th overall (27:40.77), and sophomore Devin Pierce rounded out Azusa Pacific’s scoring finishers three seconds later for 84th overall (27:43.78). Freshman Sam Baker finished in 89th place overall (27:51.56), and senior Matt Hoekstra registered a time of 29:47.51 to finish 164th out of 281 competitors.
The Cougars registered 246 points, finishing 20 points behind fifth-place Arizona Christian. Oklahoma Christian won the men’s championship with a 41-point tally, edging runner-up Malone (54 points) and the Cougars’ PacWest rival California Baptist, which took third place with 84 points.