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Hurdles to the Titles

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January 9, 2008
Gary Pine
In his day as an athlete, Kevin Reid was a hurdler. In his early days as a coach, he worked closely with a decathlete who went on to Olympic fame. So is it any wonder that as Reid enters his 13th season at the Cougar helm his plan to continue Azusa Pacific’s longstanding track & field tradition features hurdlers and decathletes, a combination that he hopes will lead the Cougars to their unprecedented 14th NAIA outdoor track & field championship and their sixth indoor crown.

Azusa Pacific returns 7 NAIA All-Americans and 21 athletes in all from a program that won last year’s NAIA indoor national championship and finished third in the outdoor meet. Add to that a strong recruiting class that of course includes 2 outstanding hurdlers and a gifted decathlete, and it becomes clear to see that Azusa Pacific should once again compete for the NAIA national title during both the indoor and outdoor seasons. “I think we’re better than last year,” said Reid as he scanned over his 37-man roster. “There will be some personnel switches between the indoor and outdoor rosters as compared to last year, but overall we appear to be pretty strong.” Among those “switches” is the fact that the Cougars won’t have reigning NAIA indoor high hurdle champ Matt Sparks or All-American half miler Jason Zichterman for the indoor campaign since they have expired their eligibility, but both will return for their final outdoor season. In return, All-American thrower James Ferguson returns for his final indoor campaign that will close out his collegiate career, and the Cougars will have a very competitive distance medley relay, an event that is not staged at the outdoor championships.

“All in all, it’s an even trade off and we’ll still be nationally competitive in both seasons,” said Reid. “Our depth is not as spread out as it has been in the past. It’s rather concentrated in a few events this year.”

And no place is that more evident than in the hurdles races where potentially 5 All-Americans will not only be vying for national recognition, but they’ll also be training together on a daily basis.

Azusa Pacific has had 21 All-American hurdlers over the past 20 seasons but never before has there been quite the collection of Cougars that the 2008 squad features. Led by the aforementioned Sparks, the 2006 NAIA 110-meter high hurdle (14.00) and 2007 NAIA 60-meter high hurdle (8.08) champion, Azusa Pacific has the potential to score at many as 40 points in the hurdles races alone at the NAIA outdoor championships. Transfers Cliffton Gay, a junior out of Central Arizona College and Kansas State University, and Chad Thomas, a senior who arrived at Azusa Pacific via Mt. San Antonio College and Morehouse College, are both sub-53-second 400-meter intermediate hurdlers. Thomas excels in the 400 hurdles and owns a lifetime best of 52.14. Like Sparks, Gay is a standout in both the high and intermediate hurdles, posting personal records of 13.85 and 51.85 over the past 4 years.

Already in the Cougar fold are seniors Jordan Burnette, an NAIA semifinalist in the 400 hurdles last year, and David Pichler, a 3-time NAIA qualifier in the high hurdles. Though he doesn’t have Sparks for the indoor season, Reid foresees Gay, Burnette and Pichler scoring for the Cougars’ in the 60-meter hurdles. His overall perfect plan for the outdoor campaign has Sparks, Gay, Thomas and Burnette qualifying for the finals in the 400 hurdles and Sparks, Gay, Burnette, and Pichler gunning for All-America honors in the high hurdles.

On top of their hurdle prowess, the 5 athletes also form the basis of a formidable 4x400-meter relay that only gets stronger and deeper with the addition of junior college transfer Anthony Logan, who over the past 2 seasons at Cuesta College registered career bests of 21.73 in the 200 and 48.25 in the 400.

Pichler will be leading a young but talented set of Cougar decathletes. Much like the hurdles, Azusa Pacific has experienced extraordinary success in the decathlon, claiming 28 All-American decathletes since the mid-1970s, including Pichler himself who has his eyes set on sweeping the heptathlon (indoor) and decathlon (outdoor) titles after being in the lead in both events at last year’s NAIA championships only to let them slip away late in the competition.

“Taking the lead last year and not winning either the heptathlon or decathlon has really stuck with Dave during the off-season,” said Reid, “and to his credit, it’s been a motivating force for him. I expect some big things from him this year.”

The 4-time All-American Pichler, who has career bests of 6,966 points in the decathlon and 4,883 in the heptathlon, heads a group of 6 Cougar decathletes who should carry on the excellent Azusa Pacific tradition. High on the list of newcomers is freshman Casey Stevick of Olympia (Wash.) High and the same youth track program that produced previous Cougar All-American decathletes Pichler and Chris Carlson. Stevick won the 2007 Washington state 4A high school title last year with a career-best 6,007 points. Also significant in his potential contributions is junior Devyn Wills, who a year ago qualified for the indoor pentathlon and produced a lifetime best of 4,052 points. Freshmen David Guzman (Tulare Western High) and Jon Ingles (Dana Point High) figure to be the future standouts for the Cougars and should benefit this year in training with a strong corps of decathletes.

When it comes to point potential on a national meet level, Azusa Pacific has one of the best distance programs in the nation, but that’s simply because the Cougars have the best individual distance runner– reigning NAIA men’s cross country champion Aron Rono. Rono has won just about every race in sight, from track to cross country, both conference and regional races along with national events. Last year, his first at Azusa Pacific after transferring from NAIA member Lindenwood University, Rono won the indoor mile and 5000 and became the first person in 15 years to win back-to-back NAIA outdoor 10,000-meter races. Seemingly his only blemish on last year’s track & field season – and it was hardly one at that – was a fourth-place finish in the outdoor 1500. Still, the 6-time NAIA track & field champion will return his focus to more lengthy outdoor distances, running the 5000 and 10,000 during the outdoor season. In his crosshairs is the goal of becoming the first athlete in NAIA history to win 4 straight 10K titles.

“He’s one of the finest in the NAIA,” Cougar distance coach Preston Grey said of Rono. “We can put a lot on his plate, and he’ll deliver.”

Zichterman and fellow senior Caleb Lynch give the Cougars a great presence in the middle distances, and both will run key legs as Azusa Pacific goes for an unprecedented sixth straight NAIA outdoor 4x800-meter relay title. Zichterman collected 4 All-Americans honors last year after coming over from the University of Colorado. On his resume, he owns lifetime bests of 1:19.95 in the 600 and 1:50.18 in the 800. No one in Azusa Pacific history has a more celebrated relay career than Lynch, a 12-time NAIA All-American with 11 of those national honors coming on relay teams. He has posted personal records of 1:19.75 in the 600 (fourth best in Azusa Pacific history) and 1:51.53 in the 800 (seventh best).

“It’ll hurt to not have Jason for the indoor season,” said Reid, “but when he comes back for the outdoor season he could be as good as anybody in the nation. His times are not spectacular in the 800 but he runs great strategic races.

Those who will bolster the Cougar distance attack are junior John Pfeil, sophomores Forrest Lewton and Caleb Mesa and freshman Rocky Richardson. All 4 have the ability to qualify for the NAIA championship meets in events ranging from the 800 to the 5000. Pfeil is a key relay figure, particularly in the 4x800. Lewton is hoping to breakout in the steeplechase. Mesa, who ran in the NAIA 10,000 last year, looks to move up the ladder this year and press for All-America recognition. After a season of cross country, Richardson returns to his element – the track – where he is expected to excel in the 800, an event in which he was the California state high school runner-up last year.

“Rocky and Forrest are the sleepers of this group,” said Grey. “If they enjoy breakout seasons, we could score around 30 points, conservatively speaking, in the distance events at the outdoor championship meet.”

In the field events, All-American Staphon Arnold carries the Azusa Pacific banner in the high jump. A near 6’ 9 high jumper last year and now with added strength and experience, Arnold could press for NAIA indoor and outdoor titles.

Ferguson, who will conclude his Cougar career following the NAIA indoor championship meet in early March, should give Azusa Pacific points in both the shot put and 35-pound weight throw. “Our presence in the field isn’t nearly has noticeable as it has been in the past,” said Reid, “but what we have in Arnold and Ferguson could be significant in terms of points on a national level.”

Second-year Cougars Kyle Cruse, Darnell Dodson and Armon DeLauney along with newcomer Adrian McCullum will team with the likes of Logan and Sparks and perhaps others to give Azusa Pacific a rather strong and deep 4x100-meter relay unit that could offer the Cougars their first national championship points in that event in 4 years.

On the local level, Azusa Pacific is gunning for a conference record tenth straight Golden State Athletic Conference championship. By running away with last year’s GSAC title, beating second-place Point Loma Nazarene University by 93 points, the Cougars joined Azusa Pacific men’s basketball (1993-2001) as the only sports in the conference’s 22-year history to win 9 straight championships. A record tenth crown for Cougar track& field is on the horizon.

“I like the makeup of this team,” added Reid. “We’re going to be very competitive in events like the hurdles and relays but we’ll make ourselves known in the distances and decathlon as well. I think we’ll be among the elite in the NAIA. Whether that means 1, 2 or no national championships is yet to be seen, but we should be in the running.”