AZUSA, Calif. -- After claiming the program’s first-ever conference championship in football, Azusa Pacific had 12 players named to the All-Great Northwest Athletic Conference team as the Cougars swept the conference’s top individual honors with the selection of junior running back Terrell Watson as the Offensive Player of the Year, junior free safety Tyler Thornton as the Defensive Player of the Year, and head coach Victor Santa Cruz voted as the GNAC Coach of the Year.
“These types of awards at the end of the year are a reflection of the collective team effort,” Santa Cruz said. “As players of the year, Terrell and Tyler are extremely talented, selfless individuals who do all they can to help their team achieve success. These are two fine individuals who reflect the collective excellence the team has had this fall.”
Azusa Pacific went 9-1 in conference play, winning the GNAC championship by a two-game margin with Watson leading the offense and Thornton spearheading the defense. Watson and Thornton were both unanimous repeat selections to the All-GNAC first team, leading the Cougars’ six first-team picks to go with six more second-team honorees.
“Having six players on offense and six on defense named to the All-GNAC teams was indicative of the balance and collective team effort we had this season,” Santa Cruz said. “This championship season wasn’t dominated by one side of the ball. Everybody had a role and did everything they could to help this team win.”
Azusa Pacific concluded the regular season with its seventh straight victory, a 28-19 road win over Simon Fraser last Saturday, but the Cougars accepted an invitation to play in the National Christian College Athletic Association Victory Bowl on Saturday, Nov. 23. Played at Barron Stadium in Rome, Ga., Azusa Pacific will take on Greenville (Ill.) College, an NCAA Division III program which brings a 9-1 record into Saturday’s game. The 2013 Victory Bowl will be broadcast live by Azusa Pacific’s student radio station KAPU (kapuradio.com) and available to view online for $6.95 through Tourbeau Sports.
Watson, who set GNAC single-season records for rushing yards (1,702 yards) and rushing touchdowns (20) while also shattering several Azusa Pacific school records along the way, scored a touchdown in 10 of 11 games, including six games with multiple scores. In a 44-36 come-from-behind win over Simon Fraser on Oct. 12, the 6-foot-2, 230-pound junior rushed for a school-record 302 yards and tied the GNAC and Azusa Pacific single-game rushing touchdown record with five touchdowns (all in the second half).
Thornton finished the season ranked second in the GNAC in total tackles (114) and interceptions (4), and he was the league leader in interception return yards (119) and forced fumbles (4). Led by the 5-foot-8, 182-pound free safety and his involvement in nine turnovers (interceptions, forced fumbles, plus one fumble recovery), the Cougar defense led the GNAC in red-zone defense and turnover margin, generating 30 takeaways on the year while allowing only 26 scores to opponents in 39 red-zone opportunities.
Santa Cruz, meanwhile, orchestrated one of the quickest turnarounds in college football in his eighth season as head coach. A year ago, Azusa Pacific went 0-7 to start its first season of NCAA Division II competition. After closing out 2012 with a four-game winning streak, the Cougars went 9-1 in conference play to claim the league title in just its second year of GNAC membership.
“In my mind, a coach of the year award is a coaching staff of the year award,” Santa Cruz said. “I’m proud that my staff and I were able to achieve this, because from top to bottom, it couldn’t be a finer group of men to work with. Their commitment to excellence goes above and beyond, and this successful season has been a culmination of great men who were humble and hungry to find a way to win, both on and off the field. Their daily commitment to the process of building champions while pursuing championships is something I value deeply.”
Joining Watson on the All-GNAC first team offense was senior center Lance Barker, who was the only returning starter to an offensive line responsible for clearing the path for Watson’s record-setting campaign. Barker, a three-year starter for the Cougars, had spent his first two years as a starter at guard before moving to center this year. Sophomore kicker Jamie Cacciatore, whose game-winning field goal against Dixie State on Nov. 9 clinched the outright GNAC title, was the All-GNAC first team kicker after leading the league in field goals (14) and field goal percentage (82.4).
Along with Thornton, Azusa Pacific was represented on the All-GNAC first team by senior defensive end Matt Moody, whose 7.5 sacks ranked third in the conference, and senior cornerback Silas Goma, who led the league in passes defended with 16 pass breakups.
The All-GNAC second team offense included a trio of first-year Cougars in senior quarterback Dasmen Stewart, junior right tackle Cody Clay, and freshman kick returner Tarik Myles. Stewart broke fall camp as the starter but missed three starts when he was injured in the season-opener at Grand Valley State. The Cougars haven’t lost since Stewart returned to the starting lineup Oct. 5 at Western Oregon, as the 6-foot-4, 225-pound quarterback has completed 87-of-147 passes (59 percent) for 1,241 yards and four touchdowns while rushing 48 times for 238 yards and three touchdowns in the seven games since he resumed starting duties.
Clay, a 6-foot-6, 330-pound right tackle, started all 11 games on the offensive line, and he also appeared on several special teams units where he came up with one of Azusa Pacific’s five blocked kicks when he got a hand on a second-quarter PAT attempt that prevented Western Oregon from tying the game in the 34-32 road win, which started the Cougars’ current seven-game winning streak.
Myles led Azusa Pacific in kickoff returns and punt returns, averaging 10.1 yards on 18 punt returns and 27.8 yards per kick return, including a 92-yard touchdown in the first half of a pivotal 24-17 road victory over GNAC runner-up Central Washington. The 5-foot-6, 152-pound true freshman also had 12 catches for 145 receiving yards along with five carries for 12 rushing yards on the season.
Three more Cougars were named to the All-GNAC second team defense: sophomore defensive tackle Talaiasi Taueli and senior linebackers Sean Barber and Jake Henderson.
Taueli ranked third on the team in tackles for loss (8.5) and second in sacks (5.0), anchoring the center of a deep defensive line that ranked statistically as the GNAC’s No. 2 rushing defense. Barber was Azusa Pacific’s tackling leader until an injury forced him to miss four midseason games, and he still finished second on the team in tackles with 80, which would have ranked fifth in the GNAC had he met the conference’s statistical minimum for games played. Barber led the team in fumble recoveries (4) and registered two forced fumbles and two interceptions in his seven games of action.
Henderson started all 11 games, finishing third on the team in tackles with 65, fourth in tackles for loss (7.0), and fifth in sacks (3.0).
Six of the Cougars’ 12 all-conference selections will be back for the 2014 season, including both the offensive (Watson) and defensive (Thornton) players of the year. Azusa Pacific hosts four-time NCAA Division II national champion Grand Valley State in the 2014 season opener on Saturday, Sept. 6, at Citrus Stadium.