Cougar track & field has won 23 NAIA team championships – 18 on the men’s side and 5 with the women. Both squads were national champions last year, the men taking the NAIA indoor crown while the women won the outdoor trophy.
In NAIA track & field circles, the name Azusa Pacific carries weight. There is tradition, success, and to put it simply, a mystique.
So as both teams head to Johnson City, Tenn., for this week’s 43rd Annual Men’s and 28th Annual Women’s NAIA Indoor Track field Championship Meets, there is an expectation that the Cougars will vie for the national titles in both meets – no matter what the entry lists declare.
On paper, neither Cougar squad is impressive enough to capture a national title. The final 2008 NAIA indoor performance lists have the 18 Cougar men and 15 women competing in Johnson City somewhere in the middle of the pack of their qualifying events. Only juniors Aron Rono and Jaime Canterbury, the reigning NAIA cross country men’s and women’s champions, are the top seeds in their events – both in the 3000 meters in addition to the mile for Rono.
The fact that Azusa Pacific doesn’t feature a number of event best times doesn’t seem to faze Azusa Pacific head coaches Mike Barnett and Kevin Reid. They’ve been here before – many times in fact.
“We weren’t even close to being among the favorites to win the outdoor meet last year,” said Barnett, who is in his ninth year leading the Cougar women. “Throughout the season we program our athletes to compete at a high level and to do it with a high degree of confidence at the national meet. Performances like the one we had last year at outdoors just adds to the confidence that our athletes have when they step onto the track this weekend.”
Likewise, Reid isn’t too concerned about what performance lists indicate heading into this week’s championship meet which opens Thursday (March 6) and concludes Saturday (March 8).
“We’re hoping that we’re better than what we look like on the list,” said Reid. “We put a lot of qualifying marks up early in the year, and then went back to training and preparing for this weekend. We’re expecting more than what our marks currently indicate.”
By the numbers, reigning outdoor champ Oklahoma Baptist University and Doane College (Neb.) are the teams most likely to supplant Azusa Pacific from the men’s indoor throne. Both schools are seeking their first-ever indoor national championships and appear to have the arsenal to make strong runs. OBU specializes in the sprints and relays, while Doane has its own sprint attack and then carries some punch in the field events.
“I don’t expect this to be a high-scoring men’s meet,” said Reid, “which means it’s anyone’s championship to win. I think we can score in the mid 60s, but we can’t make mistakes. We’re pretty good up front, but we don’t have a lot of depth and therefore we don’t have a huge margin for errors. We need to be sharp and at our best this weekend.”
Rono will carry the men’s banner as he seeks to become the first athlete in NAIA history to win back-to-back titles in both the 3000 and the mile. Last year’s NAIA meet MVP, Rono is a heavy favorite in both distance races and then will anchor the Cougars’ 4x800 and distance medley relays.
“Aron has to carry a ton on his shoulders, but he is going to be a star,” said Reid. “We need the relays to be strong and performing like they should. Our relay times are low on the performance list right now, but we’re expecting much more when we get back to Tennessee.”
All-American David Pichler and freshman Casey Stevick are 2 of 4 Cougars competing in the 16-man heptathlon field. Both Cougars are expected to press for All-American recognition with this meet perhaps being the coming-out-party for the youngster Stevick.
“Anthony is a newcomer to NAIA track,” said Reid. “No one knows him and they’ll be watching him. He can surprise some people in 600.”
Senior Caleb Lynch, an 11-time NAIA All-American, figures to use his deep national level experience to emerge as an All-American contender in the 1000 meters.
In his last appearance as a Cougar, senior James Ferguson is looking to go out an All-American effort in the 35-pound weight throw and the shot put, a pair of event in which he could score as much as 16 points for Azusa Pacific.
In the women’s competition, Wayland Baptist University (Texas) and Simon Fraser University (B.C.) have wherewithal to run for the national championship, but if neither squad is perfect, Azusa Pacific will be there to snag the crown, much like they did in Fresno at last year’s NAIA outdoor championship meet.
“I know how we look on the performance list,” Barnett admitted, “but I’m pretty sure that if we do a couple of things right, we can score in the 70s.”
And that is a title contending figure.
Key to the Cougars’ title pursuit are juniors Zora Golcevska and Jaime Canterbury. Golcevska is entered in 3 events. She is gunning for the NAIA title and school record (3,613) in the pentathlon after finishing as the NAIA runner-up in both the pentathlon and heptathlon last year. In addition, she is among the favorites in the 60-meter high hurdles, and she enters the championship meet probably one leap away from a PR and an All-American honor in the high jump. Along with the NAIA’s top time in the 3000, Canterbury is anchoring the Cougars’ formidable 4x800-meter and distance medley relays.
Sophomore Jackie Kipwambok is not to be lost or forgotten in the Cougar arsenal. Last fall she proved to be the second-best distance runner in all of the NAIA, trailing only her teammate Canterbury, and while Canterbury zeros in on the 3000, Kipwambok will seek her own individual title in the mile and 5000 meters, a real possibility given her physical strength.
“If Zora in the high jump and Mandy in the pole vault clear one more bar then they are potentially All-Americans,” said Barnett, “that’s how fickle the jumps are. And if Tiffeny and Capree run well in the 800 they could be All-Americans in the hep. Every second counts about 9 points, and they’re in a tightly packed group.”
Seniors Ruthie Wilhelm and Megan Ilertsen are the best of friends and the Cougars’ powerful duo in the throws. They arrived in 2005 as freshmen full of potential, and now over the course of 4 seasons they have developed into 2 of the NAIA’s best – Ilertsen in the 20-pound weight throw and Wilhelm in the weight throw and shot put.
Quietly waiting her turn to take center-stage is freshman sprinter Mandy Ross, who in limited action this season has emerged as one of the NAIA’s best in the 400 meters, despite the thought that this would be a rebuilding season as she recovered from an injury-plagued high school senior year. However, Ross, who was one of California’s premier prep sprinters during her 2006 junior campaign, may have regained her former form quicker than anticipated, and if so, she could prove to be a pleasant surprise at indoors.
Azusa Pacific’s competitive balance is nearly unmatched in Johnson City. Only Wayland Baptist can score in more events than Azusa Pacific. The issue will be if the Cougars can compete out in front of their events.
“Competing is about mental preparation,” said Barnett. “You can be the best athlete but if you’re not mentally ready you’re not going to compete at the top in track & field. We as coaches prepare them, and then remind them that the decision has already been made by God, so relax and compete.”
So here come the Cougars primed and ready, and everyone in Johnson City will be watching – and some will be waiting.
“We know we’re being watched,” said Reid. “We’re being scrutinized because of our name and tradition. People are expecting us to step up and perform, to not make mistakes. They’re expecting us to contend for the national championship.”
So much for entry-list comparisons.