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January 3, 2008
Gary Pine
In 2003, Mike Barnett was confident, but he wasn’t sure. In 2004, he had no doubt. Last year, he was shocked.

When it comes to predicting national championships for his team, the Azusa Pacific women’s track & field coach has run the gambit of gut instincts matched against reality. When Barnett opened the 2003 season, he thought he had a national championship team, but given the fact he had never had one before, he left room for an inkling of doubt. His team, however, did not disappoint, sweeping both the indoor and outdoor NAIA titles for Azusa Pacific’s first-ever championships in women’s track & field.

In 2004, he knew his squad was strong across the board and the Cougars confirmed his confidence by overwhelming the competition to become the first program in NAIA history to sweep the NAIA indoor and outdoor championships in consecutive seasons.

The 2007 campaign was supposed to be a season of re-loading with inexperienced but talented athletes. Barnett thought a “podium performance” – top 4 finish – was a far-fetched goal and the indoor season confirmed his notion when Azusa Pacific finished ninth, the Cougars’ lowest showing on the national level in 6 years. Thus, imagine Barnett’s surprise when 3 months later his Cougars peaked at the most opportune time with a series of personal bests that resulted in a turnaround that garnered the NAIA outdoor championship for Azusa Pacific, the Cougars’ third outdoor crown in the past 5 years and their fifth national championship overall.

Now as the defending NAIA outdoor champion, the Cougars are once again a contender for the indoor crown and another sweep of the NAIA track & field titles. Yet Barnett isn’t willing to quite go that far with his predictions for 2008

“It’s hard to know exactly where we’ll finish this year because I don’t know what other schools have brought back or recruited,” said Barnett, “but I do feel we’re a better team. I know we’re at least at the least podium team, and I would not have said that last year, especially for the indoor season.”

Azusa Pacific returns 6 All-Americans, 10 athletes in all, and 48 of the 73 points it scored to win last year’s NAIA Outdoor Championship Meet in Fresno, Calif. More importantly, the Cougars have matured. Indeed, the off-season recruiting was good, but returning Cougars have emerged not just as elite competitors but as the best in the nation.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the distance program where last fall Azusa Pacific sent notice that it not only had the best distance runner in the nation but also the second best. Junior Jaime Canterbury won the NAIA cross country individual championship last November, becoming the first Cougar ever to take the national title by clocking a school-record 17:10 over the 5K course in Kenosha, Wis. Hot on her heels and finishing a close second with a 17:14 was Cougar freshman Jacky Kipwambok.

The Canterbury-Kipwambok combination presents Azusa Pacific as a new and front-running force in track & field’s distance events, offering the Cougars opportunities to win any NAIA distance race from the indoor 1000 all the way to the outdoor 10,000. The return of All-American seniors Olivia Richert and Whitney Jacobsmeyer (indoor only) bolster the Cougars’ prominence in the distances. The addition of junior college transfer Becca Reyes and freshman Victoria Martinez makes Azusa Pacific as deep and as versatile as any distance program in the NAIA in 2008.

“We have the potential to score as much as 40 points in distance events,” said Barnett, “and perhaps as much as 50 at the outdoor meet. (Distance coach) Preston (Grey) has a done a great job with the distance program, proving that if you build a solid program, they (the great runners) will come.”

Barnett is not exaggerating when he maps out the Cougars’ point potential in the distance races. Kipwambok is an outstanding long-distance runner and will push for individual titles in the 5000 (indoor and outdoor) and/or the 10,000. Canterbury has the range to win anything from the 800 to the 5000 but will most likely focus on the shorter distances, particularly the 1000 (indoor), 1500 (outdoor) and the mile (indoor), depending on how the season unfolds. Jacobsmeyer, a 2-time All-American in the steeplechase, should excel in the indoor 3000. Richert, Reyes and Martinez offer strong back-up in events that range from the 1500 to the 5000, plus supply strong legs in the 4x800 (indoor and outdoor) and distance medley relays.

Azusa Pacific will have a strong presence as well in the multi-events – the indoor pentathlon and outdoor heptathlon. Senior All-American Zora Golcevska, the reigning NAIA runner-up in both the pentathlon and heptathlon, returns for her final season as a favorite to sweep both multi-events in 2008. She broke the school record last year in the heptathlon with 5,131 points and tallied the second-best heptathlon with 3,550 points. Golcevska will be aided in her title pursuits by a strong training group that includes 2006 heptathlon All-American Capree Bell, who returns to the Cougars healthy after enduring an injury-plagued 2007 campaign, and Tiffeny Parker, a sophomore transfer from the University of New Mexico who is full of potential to become one of the best in Azusa Pacific history.

“One of the real differences between this year’s team and last year’s is the significant boost we should get from the distances and multis,” said Barnett. “We were good there last year, but we’re much stronger and better this year.”

Azusa Pacific has garnered at least one All-America honor in the throws for the past 9 years in a row, peaking with 6 such honors in both 2003 and 2004. The string should continue this year with seniors Ruth Wilhelm and Megan Ilertsen. Wilhelm, a 4-time All-American and the younger sister of 10-time All-American Vannessa Wilhelm who helped lead the Cougars to the 2003 and 2004 crowns, is one of the most versatile throwers in Azusa Pacific history with the potential to earn All-America recognition in all 6 throwing events (indoor/outdoor shot, weight, hammer, discus and javelin). Ilertsen collected her first-ever All-America recognition last year, first in the hammer and then in the discus where she finished as the national runner-up with a personal-best throw of 156’ 1”, the fifth best toss in Cougar history.

Freshman Karen Esslinger, a terrific athlete out of Saddleback Valley Christian High in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., has displayed great promise in the javelin and should excel under the tutelage of Barnett, a former U.S. Olympic javelin thrower himself.

“Our presence in throws isn’t as strong as perhaps it was 4 or 5 years ago, but we’ll be seen and we’ll score,” said Barnett. “Ruth and Megan are very good, and Karen is an up-and-comer in the javelin.”

A quartet of individuals could prove to be difference-makers in Azusa Pacific’s title pursuit, particularly senior and team-leader Mandy Pohja, who last year cleared 11’ 7” in the pole vault for the fifth-best effort in school history. A risky event in terms of consistency and tallying points, the pole vault has been scene of some heartbreak moments for Azusa Pacific over the past 8 years. Pohja could change the tide and prove to be a significant contributor at both the indoor and outdoor championship meet.

Four-time relay All-American Kjersti Housman will compete solely in the mid-distances this year, giving up the intermediate hurdles after a chronic foot injury continually slowed her. In fact, she may have to redshirt both the indoor and outdoor seasons in order to get back to 100-percent strength. However, if at full strength Housman will strengthen the Cougars’ already potent distant program while figuring prominently in the relays.

Freshman sprinter Mandy Ross, a state sensation 2 years ago at Christian High in El Cajon, Calif., is still recovering from injuries that hampered her senior prep campaign and may be limited in her opportunities for impact this year.

Azusa Pacific seemingly has all the tools to make a successful defense of its NAIA outdoor championship. Their focus early in the 2008 campaign will be on the indoor season where the Cougars hope to begin their quest to become the first school ever in NAIA history to sweep both the indoor and outdoor championships 3 times.