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Season Of Change

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Photo by Ken Williams
Azusa Pacific's first season of competition in NCAA Division II begins Thursday, Aug. 30, with a visit to UC Davis.

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August 26, 2012
Joe Reinsch

Sunday, Aug. 26, PART 1 OF 3 (overall outlook): Season Of Change
Monday, Aug. 27, PART 2 OF 3 (defense by position): The Fast And The Furious
Tuesday, Aug. 28, PART 3 OF 3 (offense by position): Blocking Goes Big-Time

AZUSA, Calif. -- There’s a buzz surrounding Azusa Pacific football again.

In the 47-year history of Cougar football, there might never have been a greater sense of anticipation heading into a season as there is presently. The Cougars are venturing into the unknown, transitioning into their first season of NCAA Division II competition while competing within a conference for the first time in program history.

Having played against most of its new Great Northwest Athletic Conference counterparts in the past, Azusa Pacific is at least familiar with its new competitive surroundings. It knows what a single game against a tough Div. II football team feels like, but what the Cougars haven’t experienced is the week-in, week-out toll of playing a full Div. II schedule.

That excitement tempered by apprehension should be considered a credit to the warrior mentality and competitive spirit which has been infused into the fabric of the program’s culture by seventh-year head coach Victor Santa Cruz. Azusa Pacific might not follow up consecutive NAIA playoff appearances with immediate GNAC success, but it will eagerly embrace the challenge of seeing how it stacks up to a full season’s worth of Div. II competition.

“We’ve always been urgent about what we do here, but there’s an anticipation of the great adventure that’s ahead for us,” said Santa Cruz, who welcomed a program-record 126 players for the start of fall camp earlier this month. “For our school and for this program and coaching staff, there’s a very real enthusiasm, because every step we’re taking is brand new. We don’t know what’s around the bend in some areas, and that makes it exciting for us.”

A year ago, the Cougars were a veteran bunch, led by a four-year starting quarterback and 17 returning starters. The 2012 version is decidedly younger with only 11 returning starters from a year ago, although several of last year’s most productive position groups return virtually intact. Azusa Pacific will certainly miss the steady leadership and production of John van den Raadt at quarterback, but the good news for his successor is that the Cougar offensive line that paved the way for school-records last year in scoring (45.6 points per game) and rushing offense (326.2 yards per game) now brings back six players with starting experience.

“There’s no way you can just replace a guy like John van den Raadt, so we’re looking to see what type of identity this team is going to have offensively with the skill set of our next quarterback,” Santa Cruz said. “Every year, every head coach across the nation is trying to discover what their offense is about, because you need to play to your strengths. That’s what we’re going to do, and we have some guys who really have a handle on the system. We also have what I think is one of the best offensive lines we’ve ever had, and we’ve had some good ones, so that’s going to be the strength of our offense this year.”

The defense returns just five starters from last year’s squad, but the veterans who return were among the most productive on that side of the ball. The Cougars return four of their top five tacklers from a year ago, including the team tackles leader last year in middle linebacker Sean Barber (106 tackles), and several impact players from seasons past have been thrust into starting roles to form the nucleus of one of the fastest, most athletic defenses ever seen at Azusa Pacific.

“We’re certainly going to be a little bit younger, but we’ll definitely have a lot of athleticism and speed,” Santa Cruz said. “When you have that, it can be a double-edged sword. You don’t want to limit what’s great about being young, which is their passion and enthusiasm, so finding that right balance between schematic responsibility and athleticism is going to be the challenge with this young group.”

In all, Azusa Pacific has 51 returning letterwinners (22 offense; 26 defense; 3 specialists) to a squad picked to finish fourth in the GNAC Coaches’ Preseason Poll. A senior class of 24 players embraced the challenge of turning the program around following back-to-back eight-loss seasons in 2008 and 2009, and their dedication to meeting that challenge came with the reward of consecutive playoff appearances the last two years. That group now becomes the first senior class to set the stage for the next chapter of the Cougar football program’s development into NCAA Div. II competition.

The 2012 schedule is the first since 1968 that doesn’t include a matchup with the University of San Diego, which competes as a Division I Football Championship Subdivision non-scholarship program. In its place is a season-opening visit to UC Davis, just the fourth game in Azusa Pacific history against a scholarship program at the NCAA Div. I FCS level. It’s a challenging prelude to a brutal 10-game GNAC slate, which features home-and-away series with each of the other five league members.

A Sept. 8 visit to defending conference champion Humboldt State serves as Azusa Pacific’s official welcome into the GNAC, reviving another long-running football rivalry between the state of California’s only two NCAA Div. II football programs. The teams met annually from 1990 through 2010 and have played 23 times in all.

The Cougars’ home opener takes place at 10,000-seat Citrus Stadium on Sept. 15 against Dixie State. The other home games are: Sept. 29 vs. Western Oregon, Oct. 13 vs. Humboldt State, Oct. 20 vs. Central Washington (Homecoming), and the Nov. 10 regular-season finale vs. Simon Fraser. Azusa Pacific, which maintains a secondary affiliation with the National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA) may qualify for the NCCAA Victory Bowl, which is held Nov. 17 between the two top-ranked teams within the association’s 16 football-playing members.