NOVATO, Calif. -- Azusa Pacific has one title to defend along with another it’s trying to take away at this weekend’s Pacific West Conference Cross Country Championships, which are hosted by Dominican University of California at Stafford Lake in Novato.
The Cougars claimed the women’s team championship last year as a first-year PacWest member, and junior Kristie Sikma is among the contenders for the individual title as she leads the defending champions into their second conference championship meet at the NCAA Division II level. Azusa Pacific should be led by a strong top-three, which includes senior Sarah Higgens and sophomore Reika Kijima, who both contributed to last year’s PacWest championship win.
The Cougars’ top trio has the potential to put Azusa Pacific in a favorable position to defend its title, as head coach Preston Grey sees the race coming down to a series of head-to-head matchups throughout the top-20 of the individual standings.
“We need to have five in the top 20 to have a chance to win,” Grey said. “One of the biggest things will be our top three, because that’s our biggest advantage. If we win the one, two, and three matchups, and just match the four and five, that will put us in a very good position. The individuals on our team have all had their moments this year, and if we can get them to all have their moment together, that makes us very hard to beat.”
Challengers to Azusa Pacific’s title defense include California Baptist, Hawai‘i Pacific, and BYU-Hawaii, and rounding out the Cougars’ seven-athlete championship roster are freshman Kylie Betts, junior Elle Farrar, sophomore Natalie Koskela, and junior Elizabeth Lyons.
“I feel really good about this group, because we finally have our full crew and we’re rounding into shape at the right time,” Grey said. “We haven’t put a great race together all season, but we’ve still been able to beat all the PacWest competition we faced so far. If we can put one together on Saturday, we’re going to be really tough to beat.”
After finishing fourth last year, the Azusa Pacific men’s cross country team set out to close the gap this year between itself and defending PacWest champion California Baptist. The Cougars certainly made progress towards that goal, finishing ahead of the Lancers at the UC Riverside Invitational on Sept. 14. Leading the way for the men’s team is junior Peter Buscheck, who was his team’s top finisher in three of four races this year and could be in the mix for the PacWest individual title.
“We set a goal of having a chance to win this meet – that was a big goal when we made it, but I think we’ve done that,” Grey said. “In our last meet with California Baptist, they beat us by a little bit at each spot, and in those top five matchups, I think we have to win three of those five to be in good shape. It’s a great step forward just to be in that conversation, but you still have to do something with it. We’ve come a long ways, but there’s still some steps we have to take, and running well Saturday would be a step in the right direction.”
Running alongside Buscheck should be sophomore Aaron Potts, who led the team the one time so far when Buscheck was second on the team. Freshman Kyle Bueckert has consistently finished in the team’s top three places all season, and he should be able to do so again in his first-ever conference championship meet. The PacWest championship roster is filled out by sophomore Ryan Phillips, junior Danny Guerrero, junior Devin Pierce, and freshman Noah Peña.
The top 21 finishers in each race will earn All-PacWest honors, with the first, second, and third teams determined in groups of seven. The women’s race will start at 9 a.m., while the men’s race is scheduled for 10 a.m.