Not everyone buys that premise, and typically the fiercest of competitors scoff at such thought. Yet any loyal follower of Azusa Pacific football not only accepts the theory, they embrace it. Particularly this year.
One of the NAIA’s winningest gridiron programs for a decade, Azusa Pacific has nonetheless experienced 2 losing campaigns since 1995. However, each time the Cougars suffered a sub-.500 season they followed with one of their best efforts in program history.
For instance, in 1997 Azusa Pacific returned nearly its entire offense and the majority of its starters on defense from a team that went 7-3 the year before. Yet the team sputtered, failed miserably to meet expectations, and stumbled to a disappointing 4-5 record. Embarrassed by the result, the Cougars regrouped and under the direction of fourth-year head coach Vic Shealy rebounded in a fashion no one saw coming. In 1998 Azusa Pacific won a school-record 10 straight games and 12 of 14 in all, earning its first-ever bid into the NAIA playoffs. Happy just to be a first-time playoff participant, the Cougars shocked themselves by winning 4 straight postseason games to capture the NAIA national championship.
Three years later in 2001, after making 3 consecutive NAIA playoff appearances, the Cougars slipped again, posting another substandard 4-5 record. Peter Shinnick, then entering his fourth season at the Cougar helm after taking over for Shealy, rallied the troops, and in 2002 Azusa Pacific went 9-1 for the best regular-season performance in school history. Though the NAIA rating committee inexplicably voted Azusa Pacific out of playoff contention the final week of the season, the Cougars, in their own minds, had rebounded in a mighty fashion.
In fact, that 2001 team set the stage for the next 3 Cougar squads, all of which advanced to the NAIA playoffs. Until last year.
The 2006 season was one like none before over the previous 15 years of Azusa Pacific football. The Cougars lost 5 of their first 6 games, enduring a monstrous-like schedule that no one else in the NAIA came close to matching. Under first-year Cougar mentor Victor Santa Cruz, a Shinnick protégé, Azusa Pacific staggered its way to a 3-7 campaign and its NAIA playoff run came to an end.
While difficult to tolerate at the time, that 2006 season has laid the foundation for what Santa Cruz believes will be an excellent 2007. And history is on his side.
Azusa Pacific returns 12 starters, 5 on each side of the line along with the place kicker and punter, from last year’s team. In all 55 players are back.
Satisfactory numbers indeed when trying to rebound from a sub-par season, but those numbers alone won’t springboard Azusa Pacific back into playoff contention. Thus Santa Cruz welcomes 52 new players, who combined with the returnees, are determined to lead Azusa Pacific back into the promise land – postseason play.
It won’t be easy though.
According to several power ratings, last year Azusa Pacific far-and-away played the most difficult schedule of any NAIA team. In fact, according to atomicfootball.com, Azusa Pacific had no NAIA peer in terms of schedule difficulty. Six of the Cougars’ 11 opponents were nationally-ranked and combined for a 60-10 (.857) record. Four of those foes lost just 1 game all season, and another, which suffered just 2 defeats, lost to the same team both times.
So what about this year’s schedule? It’s nearly the same, and probably more difficult.
Nine of last year’s 10 opponents are back on the slate. Not making a return visit is 2-time NCAA Division III runner-up Wisconsin-Whitewater, who the Cougars have replaced on this year’s docket with Nicholls State College, only the third NCAA Division I-AA scholarship program ever to appear on an Azusa Pacific schedule. Also added to this year’s agenda is MidAmerica Nazarene University, a 3-time NAIA playoff participant over the past 5 years.
“It’s a new era of Cougar football,” said Santa Cruz as he glanced over the 2007 agenda. “The harsh reality is that we can’t assume we’re going to win. We can’t just show up and say ‘we’re Azusa Pacific, we’re supposed to win.’ The demands of our schedule require a maturity in the program and a new competitive spirit and philosophy.”
While last year’s results were indeed disheartening to a program that is used to winning, the response of this year’s returnees has been nothing short of encouraging.
“A stronger culture is developing,” said Santa Cruz. “I’ve been very pleased with how the veterans are responding. The work ethic has changed significantly. You can tell their pride was punctured last year, so this year their mindset has changed. They’re pushing each other, holding each other accountable, and responding to the challenge of the opponent.”
Santa Cruz is taking action as well. He and his coaching staff worked overtime in recruiting, filling noticeable holes along both sides of the line and some not so noticeable ones in terms of depth.
“For every non-Division I program, depth is an every-year issue,” said Santa Cruz, “and when you combine our schedule with our lack of depth last year, it was inevitable that we would suffer crucial injuries that would hamper our potential. Our opponent was just too physical week in and week out for us to hold up.”
In 2006, Azusa Pacific suffered season-ending injuries to 2 quarterbacks, 3 defensive linemen, a linebacker and 3 running backs. There was an assortment of other injuries that sidelined several other starters for multiple games.
“The focus of our off-season recruiting was along the offensive and defensive fronts,” said Santa Cruz. “Our recruiting will make a difference this year.”
Azusa Pacific will have 4 new starters along its offensive front and possibly 2 new starters on its 3-man defensive front. In addition, young redshirt freshmen along with sophomores and juniors who showed promise last year are now ready to step up as key reserves along both fronts.
Still, like it does for any successful football team, the whole proposition turns on the quarterback, where veteran Rudy Carlton (6-4, 225, sr.) returns for his sixth and final year in the program. If Carlton can maintain his health (he has enjoyed just one injury-free season to date) and therefore establish some consistency, then Azusa Pacific might return to the elite of the NAIA. The road traveled by these Cougars, and the past that they have bore, will certainly prepare them for anything they see in a possible postseason scenario.
Despite losing 4 starters, including a trio of 3-year starters, the Cougars appear to be significantly stronger along the offensive front. Junior Ben Winslow (6-4, 265) is the lone returning starter, and Santa Cruz is moving him from guard to center because of his experience and attention to detail. Junior college transfers David Ofahulu (OG, 6-3, 300, Santa Ana CC), Mike Visser (OG, 6-4, 335, Pima CC) and Joel Garnica (OT, 6-3, 260, Mt. SAC) offer plenty of size and strength to bolster the rebuilt line. Though just a freshman, Robby Palacios (OT, 6-6, 315, Upland HS) is a skilled beast who is expected to vie for a starting berth.
“This is as tough a group of young men as you’ll find,” said Santa Cruz. “There is a maturity and a well-roundedness to this unit that really excites me. They are strong across the board, and now it’s just a matter of them understanding the schemes and coming together as a group.”
Redshirts Eric Beaton (OG, 6-0, 230, Fr.), Josh Carlton (OT, 6-5, 280, Fr.) and Dustin Fortenberry (OG, 6-4, 290, Jr.) team with returnees James Graham (OT, 6-4, 260, So.) and Jonathan Klish (OT, 6-2, 240, jr.) to give Azusa Pacific some of its best depth along the offensive front in several years.
“This is a physical bunch,” added Santa Cruz. “Whether we need to move the ball on the ground or offer pass protection, I have confidence in their ability to execute the task at hand.”
RECEIVERS Azusa Pacific returns its top 3 wide outs of a year ago, including leading receiver Jon Davis (6-3, 200, jr., 29 rec, 302 yards, 3 TDs), a marvelous athlete who is getting better each passing season, this one being just third of playing football.
Todd Wilson (5-8, 190, sr., 9 rec, 108 yards) is a hard-nosed, possession type receiver who can go over the middle or lay down a block in the run game.
Jordan Farrell (6-1, 190, sr., 8 rec, 153 yards, 1 TD) is versatile enough to go deep or be physical over the middle.
Paul Hardiman (5-11, 170, sr., 3 rec, 38 yards) is the Cougars’ speed-burner who can change a game in a moment’s notice.
“This group is going to be much more consistent this year,” said Santa Cruz. “They worked hard in the off-season in reading and understanding secondaries and then knowing what the QBs are anticipating.
Returning reserves Andrew Kazanjian (5-10, 190, jr.) and Trent Sakioka (5-10, 185, sr.) have experience in the system and will be called upon throughout the season. Underclassmen Monti Sutton (5-11, 165, so.) and Ryan Chamberlin (5-11, 170, fr.) have the natural giftedness to push for playing time amongst a veteran group.
RUNNING BACKS If nothing else, Azusa Pacific is more flexible in the backfield than it has been the past 2 seasons. Though 2,000-yard rusher Marcus Lampkin has graduated, Azusa Pacific has an assortment of promising replacements. Junior Alex Peltier (5-9, 210), who rushed for nearly 750 yards as a 2004 true-freshman, is back at full strength after enduring a pair of injury-plagued campaigns. The bruising back teams with David Kim (5-10, 200, so.) and Tyler Roach (6-0, 240, jr.) to give Azusa Pacific a physicality to its run game that was sorely missing.
With his track-like speed, Darnell Dodson (5-8, 160, sr.) offers the Cougar run attack a jolt of electricity. Dodson came to the Cougars last year as a wide-out, but he made a late-season switch to the backfield and displayed flashes of great potential during his limited exposure.
Transfer Armon De’Launey (5-10, 205, jr., Weber State) may be the best at combining speed with strength and should compete for significant playing time.
QUARTERBACKS Carlton has thrown for nearly 1,800 yards in a sputtered career that has allowed him to appear in just 16 games since his 2002 arrival. A strong-armed, courageous signal-caller, Carlton has been hampered by injuries every year except the 2005 campaign when he came on strong over the second half of the season to wrestle away the starting position. However, hand and shoulder injuries limited him to just 3 full-game appearances last year. When healthy, Carlton can spearhead a dynamic attack similar to his performance against nationally-ranked Eastern Oregon in 2005 when he completed 16-of-21 passes for 353 yards and 3 TDs.
“Rudy is prototypical quarterback with a Brett-Favre-like attitude,” said Santa Cruz. “He is the leader we need out there. He is being patient but diligent and is a quality representative of this senior class that is setting a standard for a new level of work ethic.”
Where Azusa Pacific has most notably strengthened itself is behind Carlton. A pair of freshmen, one redshirt and one true, will back up Carlton, and though quite young to the college game, both are talented in their own right and are expected to be quality leaders if called upon.
Rodney Trimm (5-11, 160) is as an athletic a quarterback as Azusa Pacific has had in over 15 years. A transfer from the University of South Dakota where he redshirted the 2006 season, Trimm is lightening quick with a strong arm.
Aaron Strazicich (6-3, 200) is a highly decorated rookie whose prep career honors include MVP of the Orange County high school all-star game. Strazicich’s talent is a welcomed addition to a competitive group.
In addition, Tyler Davis (5-9, 190 so.,), a veteran in the program, offers experience and wisdom.
“As we move into our second season as a coaching staff, we now have an established offensive system,” said Santa Cruz. “Rudy understands it much better, and Rodney had a great spring working in it. We’ll be much more productive this year because our QBs will have a better understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Perhaps the most improved area on the team, Azusa Pacific now sports no less than 6 players who could have started on last year’s 3-man front.
“As big of a heart as our defensive line guys had last year, we still got pushed around, particularly late in the game,” said Santa Cruz. “We just didn’t have the depth nor size to hold up for 4 quarters, and with the demanding style of defense that we play, we have to be able to rotate guys along that front the entire game.”
Arguably Azusa Pacific may have changed the results of at least 3 games last year had the Cougar defense not worn out late in those contests. Santa Cruz specifically addressed that need by going deep into the recruiting well for a plethora of frontline men.
Senior DE Casey Roel (5-10, 210, 46 tackles, 6 sacks) is the heart and soul of an active and physical front. His speed and tenacity allows him to wreak havoc on opposing QBs, and Roel will have opportunities to rest without the Cougar defense missing a beat.
Juniors Joe Sloan (6-3, 270, ng., Palomar CC) and Darrell Tupuola (6-3, 295, de., Cerritos CC) supply muscle and size to a defensive front that should be strong against the run.
Junior Eric Augustine (6-0, 260) is back at full-strength after missing the final 6 games last year with an injury. A seemingly immoveable object, Augustine will battle throughout the season for the starting berth at nose guard he owned at the start of last year.
Returnees Shaun Kemp (6-3, 240, sr., 7 tackles), who came off the bench in 9 games during 2006, and Blake Fitzgerald (6-3, 300, So., 8 tackles), who appeared in 6 games, present quality depth and experience to make the Cougar defensive front a competitive unit for starting berths.
“The entire defensive front is coming off a great spring,” said Santa Cruz. “Their confidence is up, and we as coaching staff are excited about the possibilities of this unit being a real difference-maker game in and game out.”
The defense’s greatest experience combines with the greatest unknowns among the Cougar linebacking corps. All-America candidate and 2-year starter Travis Bengard (6-2, 210, jr.) is back with his near 160 tackles and 21 tackles for loss from the past 2 seasons. Along his side returns starter Brian Casey (5-11, 205, jr.), who collected 44 tackles including 6 for loss in his 10 games last year.
The other 2 positions in Azusa Pacific’s “odd-front” scheme are up for grabs. A healthy Kenny Simmons (5-11, 230, jr.) can be an impact player but the one-time starter is coming off back-to-back season-ending injuries that have shelved him the past 2 seasons. Fellow returnee Mac Gebbers (5-11, 200, sr., 24 tackles in 2006) and newcomer Dez Revish (6-0-, 230, jr., College of the Canyons) are strong candidates to earn starting berths but returnees Mike Perez (5-7, 195, sr., 34 tackles), a 3-year Cougar, Greg Neale (5-11, 210, so., 3 tackles) and Zach Wilson (6-0, 220, fr.) figure to have a final say who starts and plays significant time.
“This is an athletic group but young,” said Santa Cruz. “We have confidence that they will be productive but they can’t back away from the challenges that will be presented to them.”
Azusa Pacific returns plenty of experience in its secondary, particularly with postseason honors candidate Cameron Tucker (5-9, 170, sr.) at one cornerback. The speedy veteran, who led the team with 4 interceptions (9 for his career) is expected to step up his play during his fourth and final year as a starter.
Tucker will be flanked by fellow returning starter at corner Brent Willard (6-1, 195, so.), who collected 27 tackles and a pick in 8 games last year. Hard-hitting Jayson Sanchez (6-0, 195, sr., 26 tackles) is back as well at free safety. Strong safety Beau Leauman (6-0, 190, jr., 12 tackles) figures to push for the first starting call of his career.
Last year’s key reserves, returnees Andre Hunter (5-9, 165, jr., 4 tackles), Curtis Smith (5-11, 180, sr., 2 tackles) and Amilcar Archila (5-10, 185, so., 1 tackles) team with redshirt Trevor Love (6-0, 180, fr.) and transfers Jonathan McPhee (5-11, 200, jr., Temple) and Travon Moore (6-0, 195, sr., Bethel) to give Azusa Pacific great depth, experience and talent in the secondary.
“There is a lot more experience in our secondary than anywhere else on the team,” said Santa Cruz, “and that’s a real plus because our secondary will have a more different component to learn in our scheme this year.”
For only the second time in the program’s 43-year history Azusa Pacific is playing an 11-game schedule (2004 was the other season). It all starts with a first-ever game in August when the Cougars travel to Platte City, Mo., to take on MidAmerica Nazarene is the inaugural Victory Sports Network First Down Classic on Aug. 25.
Azusa Pacific makes first-ever trips to Wisconsin-LaCrosse, Nicholls State in Thibidoux, La., Dixie State College in St. George, Utah, and Webber International University in Lake Wales, Fla. The Cougars also visit longtime rival Humboldt State.
“As a young man growing up, this is the college football you wanted to play,” said Santa Cruz. “You want to go on the road and play difficult opponents. Our guys will embrace this.”
Back in Canyon City, Azusa Pacific hosts national-ranked University of San Diego (NCAA I-AA mid-major), Malone College (NAIA), and Whitworth College (NCAA III) while also entertaining Southern Oregon University and first-time California visitor Southern Nazarene University.
“I’m very excited about this football team, and I can’t wait to get the season going,” said Santa Cruz, who guided Azusa Pacific to its first-ever NAIA Team Scholar award last year. “There is great character among these men, and this group will endure. There is a sense of self-responsibility on this team. We’re going to be successful on and off the field.
“I believe this can be a playoff-caliber team. The road there is going to be tough, and we have miles to go, both literally and figuratively. However, I believe we are very tough, and if we get to the playoffs, we will be prepared like no other team in the nation.”