AZUSA, Calif. -- Every cup has its heroes.
Azusa Pacific University claimed its fifth consecutive Directors Cup, earning recognition as the best in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) for the 2008-09 season. In addition, the Cougars matched the longest run of Directors Cup titles in NAIA history for its current 5-year run as the NAIA’s top athletics program.
In doing so, Azusa Pacific claimed 3 NAIA championships during the 2008-09 season (women’s cross country, men’s indoor track & field, men’s outdoor track & field) and registered points towards its cup-winning tally in 14 different sports, although the Cougars’ 908-point finish counts only the maximum 12 sports in which program rules allow schools to score (6 men’s and 6 women’s teams).
But no cup is collected, no national championships clinched, without the heroic efforts that have seemingly become commonplace in the storied history of Azusa Pacific athletics. The spotlight shines brightly on the Cougar stars, those gifted athletes who consistently perform at the highest levels of their respective sports. The standout performances of NAIA All-Americans like Aaron Rono, Alex Moore-Porter and Brice Cutspec are but a few that helped lift Azusa Pacific to the 2009 Directors Cup, yet the stories that help inspire the continued success of the entire Cougar athletics program are created by the program’s everyday heroes: student-athletes like Monti Sutton, Kristie Hala’ufia and Titus Lester.
Sutton’s first career 50-foot triple jump provided Azusa Pacific with its ultimate margin of victory for the men’s track & field outdoor national title, and the 5-foot-10 jumper’s 50-foot, half-inch leap helped seal the Cougars’ 15th men’s outdoor national title.
A year earlier, Sutton had led the event until the final round, when 2 competitors edged him by a matter of inches on their final jumps of the competition to leave him with a disappointing third-place finish. One of those competitors was 2008 NAIA triple jump champion Illiyan Chamov, who turned in a 2009 mark of 49-feet, 1-inch that ensured Sutton would have to come up with the best jump of his 3-year track & field career in order to have a chance to win the event. That’s exactly the leap he delivered, uncorking just the fifth 50-foot triple jump in Azusa Pacific history to shatter his personal career-best by nearly a foot and claim the event championship.
Sutton, who aspires to a career in public service as a firefighter or police officer once he completes his psychology degree next spring, embodies Azusa Pacific’s team spirit in a sport whose culture is individually driven.
“We all understand how challenging it is individually,” Sutton said. “But we all take comfort in knowing that our teammates are right behind us every step of the way. It might not be in the same event, but we’re all there for each other. After I jumped, it was a huge relief to me. The team was about 20 yards away, and they let out a huge roar knowing that I had just nailed the jump of my life.”
The Azusa Pacific women’s basketball team advanced to the program’s sixth consecutive NAIA Tournament thanks to the formidable frontcourt duo of Moore-Porter and Hala’ufia, who averaged a combined 34 points and 17 rebounds on the season. Moore-Porter recorded a team-high 15 double-doubles, and she and Hala’ufia were the only teammates in the Golden State Athletic Conference who ranked in the conference’s top 15 in both scoring and rebounding.
The success of the season was not something to be taken lightly by Hala’ufia, a 6-foot-2 communication major who has spent 4 years at Azusa Pacific while participating in just 2 seasons. She was forced to miss her first 2 collegiate campaigns at Azusa Pacific to comply with NAIA academic eligibility requirements, but watching 2 seasons from the sidelines taught her ways to contribute off the court to the team’s overall success. The live game experience she had waited patiently for, however, seemingly crashed to the Oman Arena floor in Jackson, Tennessee, on March 19, less than halfway into the Cougars’ opening-round tilt with Southern Nazarene. Hala’ufia came down from a baseline jumper and landed awkwardly on a defender’s foot, suffering a painful ankle sprain.
Despite the injury, Hala’ufia insisted on playing through the pain, and she logged another 12 minutes in the second half to help lead Azusa Pacific to the 65-55 first-round victory. The next night, Hala’ufia turned in a gutsy 12-point, 5-rebound performance in 29 hobbled minutes against eventual national runner-up Lambuth.
“Throughout the season, Kristie kept asking me how she could be a better leader, and that spirit helped make us as good as we were,” women’s basketball coach T.J. Hardeman said of Hala’ufia. “After she hurt her ankle, she wasn’t perfect by any means, but she had a solid game against one of the biggest posts she faced all season long. Her teammates knew what she was going through, and they knew if Kristie was doing this, how could they do anything but give their all?”
After a 26-6 start to the 2009 baseball season, Azusa Pacific’s hopes of advancing to a third straight NAIA World Series were seemingly all but dashed by the next 19-game stretch that included 14 games on the road. The Cougars won just 7 of those 19 games while suffering 8 defeats by a margin of 2 runs or less. The late-season slide halted Azusa Pacific’s momentum heading into the 5-team NAIA Baseball Championship Opening Round tournament, and the Cougars dropped into the loser’s bracket on the opening night of the 3-day tournament.
Junior first baseman Brice Cutspec was 1 of just 3 collegians at any level to hit 30 home runs in 2009, hitting his 30th with 2 runners on early in the No. 4-seeded Cougars’ wild elimination contest against No. 2-seeded British Columbia. Azusa Pacific twice rallied from deficits in the game, eventually taking an 18-15 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning against the heart of the opponents’ lineup.
Cutspec surrendered his defensive position for that final frame to Lester, a fifth-year senior who was appearing in just the second NAIA postseason contest of his career. The 6-foot-1 first baseman had been left off the postseason roster in his 2007 junior campaign, when the Cougars advanced to the NAIA World Series for the first time in 23 years. He then redshirted the 2008 campaign, focusing his priorities instead on a rigorous academic slate towards his applied health degree, missing the program’s second straight NAIA World Series appearance.
Originally recruited to Azusa Pacific as a shortstop, Lester annually competed for spots as a catcher and outfielder before settling into his role as a late-innings defensive replacement for Cutspec at first base. Lester could only watch as British Columbia loaded the bases on a walk and a pair of 2-out base hits in the ninth, but with his team’s season on the line, Lester snared a line-drive rocket down the first-base line in the biggest moment of his collegiate career. His highlight-reel catch sent the Cougars into that night’s Opening Round tournament championship game.
“Titus hits every ideal for me as a coach, and he exemplifies those values in who he is as a student-athlete,” baseball head coach Paul Svagdis said. “Academically, athletically, and as a Christian leader, Titus carried himself in a way that earned the respect of his peers. His work ethic and attitude was second to none, even though he didn’t get the personal gratification of being able to play every day.”
Each Cougar squad that takes the field does so with many similar tales of unsung heroes, and the final result is the most prestigious award an NAIA athletics program can receive. Azusa Pacific is 1 of just 5 institutions that have won 5 consecutive Directors Cup trophies. Only Stanford University (NCAA Division I), Grand Valley State University (Mich.), Simon Fraser University (B.C.), and Williams College (Mass.) have accomplished the same feat in their respective associations.
The Directors’ Cup is a prestigious awards program administered by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA) that annually honors the best overall collegiate athletics programs in the country. Points are awarded to each school based on the postseason national tournament finish of a pre-determined number of men’s and women’s sports. The NAIA award is tabulated using a maximum of 6 men’s and 6 women’s sports.
For the 2008-09 season, Azusa Pacific scored 915 points, beating second-place and Golden State Athletic Conference rival Concordia University by more than 140 points to win another NAIA title. The Cougars collected a combined 300 points from its 3 NAIA championships in women’s cross country, men’s indoor track & field and men’s outdoor track & field. Runner-up finishes from men’s cross country and women’s indoor track & field accounted for another 90 points each, with women’s outdoor track & field picking up another 80 points with a fourth-place finish.
Other scoring sports for the women included soccer (fifth place, 70 points), as well as the first-year swimming & diving program’s seventh-place NAIA finish that garnered 69 points. Volleyball posted 64 points with a ninth-place finish, reaching the maximum 6 scoring women’s sports. Not included in Azusa Pacific’s winning total were 53-point totals awarded to women’s basketball and women’s tennis. The scoring for men’s sports included 70 points for the Cougar tennis team’s fifth-place finish, along with 50 points for baseball and 25 points for men’s basketball NAIA tournament appearances.
Success has found Azusa Pacific in the form of a fifth Waterford crystal trophy, but a full trophy case doesn’t begin to tell the story of Cougar athletics. Each cup is special, because each has been made possible by Azusa Pacific’s everyday heroes.
Click here to view the final 2009 NAIA Directors' Cup Standings.