AZUSA, Calif. -- Head Coach Victor Santa Cruz welcomed 112 players to Wednesday’s first day of practice as Azusa Pacific opened 16-days of fall workouts, including a dozen 2-a-days, in preparation for the Sept. 4 season-opening game at the University of San Diego.
As Santa Cruz begins his fifth season at the helm, he has 61 players back from last year’s team, including 11 starters, 5 on offense and 6 on defense. Heading the list of returnees are post-season honors candidates John van den Raadt and Jay York.
Van den Raadt, a junior quarterback who has added 10 pounds to his frame in the off-season, is the unquestioned veteran leader of an offensive attack that scored 92 points over the final 2 games of the 2009 campaign. With already 20 games under his collegiate belt, van den Raadt has started the past 18 games in a row, and in just half of his college career has already became the first quarterback in program history to throw for over 3,000 yards and rush for another 500 yards.
York, a senior linebacker who has never missed a game in his 32-game Cougar career, is coming off a breakthrough season in which he tallied 125 tackles, the fourth-best single-season total in school history, finishing seventh in the NAIA with 11.4 tackles per game.
Also on offense, the Cougars return big-play receivers Matt Davis (39 catches in 2009, 19.8 yards per catch, 6 TDs) and Aaron Wall (37, 13.5, 1) along with tight ends Tyson Hetzer (6-6, 235) and Josh Anderson (6-4, 215). The Cougar offensive front returns starting guard John Burrows (6-5, 300), who is 40 pounds lighter this season, and tackle Robby Palacios (6-5, 300), who sat out the 2009 campaign after starting 17 games the prior 2 seasons.
Azusa Pacific returns its top 4 tacklers from a year ago. Along with York, senior DE Jake Jones (6-2, 235, 61 tackles in ’09), sophomore FS Shea Struiksma (6-3, 205, 58) and junior CB Paul Royster (5-11, 180, 55) are back.
High on the list of newcomers who will need these 16 days to adjust to the Cougar system are junior LB Kory Johnson (6-0, 235, Saddleback CC), freshman NG Api Foumai (6-1, 260, Aiea HS), sophomore OL Craig Masaniai (6-1, 330, Victor Valley CC), junior OG Joe Bolgnesi (6-2, 270, Mesa State) and junior SS Darrell Wilson (6-0, 215, Mt. SAC).
“We’re excited to be back on the field,” said Santa Cruz. “The staff is very pleased with the work our returnees put in during the off-season and through mini-camps. We can see that it’s already paying dividends. There is a lot of experience on this team. Many of these players played a lot as freshmen, and they had to play at a higher level given the schedule we’ve faced in recent years.”
The Cougars open their 9-game schedule at San Diego on Sept. 4 with a 6 p.m. kickoff in Torero Stadium. Returning to the slate after lengthy absences are longtime local rivals La Verne, Whittier and Chapman, giving Azusa Pacific 5 games in Southern California this year. The Cougars have just 3 home games, all of which will be played at nearby Citrus Stadium. Their final 3 games are on the road, including back-to-back trips to Western Oregon and Southern Oregon, and a first-ever visit to Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo.