AZUSA, Calif. -- When Azusa Pacific opens the 2013 cross country season Saturday in Riverside, it does so as the first team in school history to start a season as the defending Pacific West Conference champion.
Ninth-year head coach Preston Grey hopes his teams pick up right where they left off last year in the competitive PacWest, where his women’s team fended off California Baptist and Grand Canyon for the conference title while the men’s team posted a fourth-place team finish in the PacWest. The Cougars later claimed the National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA) women’s cross country national championship, with the men posting a sixth-place national finish.
A youthful roster last year gained valuable collegiate experience, and Grey has added more talent to both teams to help elevate both programs in the competitive NCAA Division II West region. Both teams return their top PacWest and NCCAA individual finisher from a year ago, and both teams also bring back at least four of their top-five conference finishers from last year’s conference and national championship meets.
While Azusa Pacific is competing in regular-season and conference championship competition with other NCAA Division II programs, its first opportunity to compete at the regional and national levels of Division II is still a year away. However, the upcoming year is hardly a time to sit back and savor last season’s PacWest and NCCAA championships, even though repeating for both titles is certainly within reach. Beyond this year, the Cougars have their sights set on the development that must take place for the program to extend its successful tradition at the NAIA and NCCAA level into Division II beginning in 2014.
Azusa Pacific has won seven conference championships in the past eight years, winning the Golden State Athletic Conference six times in seven years before winning the Pacific West Conference in its first try last year. The Cougars have also advanced to 18 consecutive national championship meets, making 17 consecutive NAIA appearances before claiming last year’s national title at the NCCAA championships.
“The goals remain the same for the women’s program: we want to win the conference, and we want to contend for a national title,” Grey said. “As a team, we’ll be similar to last year and perhaps even be a little better up front. Our depth is similar, and if there’s a significant difference, it’s that we have a lot of potential middle distance talent down the road in track and field with this group.”
Junior Kristie Sikma and senior Sarah Higgens return to lead the way after both placed in the top-10 individually at both the conference and national championship meets. Sophomore Reika Kijima used her first season of collegiate cross country along with a full spring of track and field to her advantage, moving closer to Sikma and Higgens in fall workouts. Kijima’s development could provide a significant boost to the Cougars’ title hopes and continued progress towards future years, along with the continued improvement of all-conference sophomores Natalie Koskela and Sarah MacIntosh.
The deep 15-athlete roster is still very young, featuring three freshmen and seven sophomores, while Higgens is the lone senior and Sikma is one of four juniors. The sophomore class includes Christina Russell and Sadie Ringer, who each participated in at least four meets last season in their first year of collegiate racing. Newcomers include Kylie Betts, a true freshman with great potential to contribute as she gains mileage at the collegiate level, and junior transfer Elizabeth Lyons, who joins the program after two years at Pasadena City College.
“We’re a young team, but the older girls are carrying on that culture and tradition,” assistant coach Bethany Nickless said. “Even though we are a team that’s brought in a lot of new faces the last couple of years, there can’t be any kind of letdown from the tradition that’s been built, because they all know that qualifying for Division II nationals is coming next year, and they know it’s going to be difficult.”
The Cougars will be defending their title against one less challenger with the move of Grand Canyon, which finished third in the PacWest last year, to NCAA Division I. Last year’s PacWest runner-up California Baptist is a title threat that Azusa Pacific will see early in the regular season when it opens up with back-to-back meets in Riverside.
The men’s program is still developing into a serious Pacific West Conference title contender, although the young nine-man roster is certainly talented and has just enough experience to know what it needs to do to continue its ascent towards the top of the conference.
“California Baptist has had a stranglehold on the PacWest the last couple of years, but we want to push them and close that gap,” Grey said. “We’re better than last year, and top to bottom this is probably our best team in five years. We may not have the frontrunners that we had on that 2008 team, but we’re really solid from top to bottom.”
The Cougars’ top-three will likely shake out to be junior Peter Buscheck, a returning all-conference performer, along with sophomore Aaron Potts and true freshman Kyle Bueckert. Potts was a qualifier for the U.S. Junior Outdoor Track & Field National Championships in the 1500 meters, while Bueckert was the cross country state runner-up in California as a high school junior.
“The top three showed up in great shape and have looked good so far in early season workouts. They’re buying in and learning to train on the level they need to be an elite athlete,” Grey said.
Another young returner, sophomore Ryan Phillips, along with junior college transfer Danny Guerrero should fill out the top-five. Phillips steadily improved throughout his freshman year last season, while Guerrero is a potential track and field All-American in the middle distances who hasn’t had much collegiate experience with cross country. Junior Devin Pierce had a consistent sophomore year and could push into the top five.
Junior Mike Richardson is new to the cross country team after participating in track and field last spring, and he joins freshman Noah Pena and junior Cameron Correa-Henschke to round out the nine-man squad.
The Cougars open the season at the California Baptist Invitational on Saturday, Sept. 7, and they’ll return to Riverside a week later to take part in the UC Riverside Invitational for the second straight year on Saturday, Sept. 14. After those two meets, Azusa Pacific spends the rest of the season competing away from southern California., starting with a Saturday, Sept. 28 visit to Minneapolis, Minn., for the Roy Griak Invitational, which is expected to feature a competitive field that will likely include several nationally-ranked schools from the Midwest. It’s another three weeks until the Santa Clara Bronco Invitational in Sunnyvale, Calif., on Saturday, Oct. 19, which leads into the Nov. 2 Pacific West Conference championships hosted by Dominican University in the Bay Area. The National Christian College Athletic Association Championships are scheduled for Nov. 16 in Cedarville, Ohio.