JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. – Less than 10 seconds into the 3-day NAIA Indoor Track & Field Championship Meet, Zora Golcevska laid down the gauntlet. This was going to be a different meet – there would be no second-place finishes, not this time.
Golcevska opened the 2008 NAIA Indoor Track & Field Championships today by winning the pentathlon in school-record fashion. She scored 3,642 points, breaking Mireya Beltran’s former program standard of 3,613 set in 2004, and in the process teamed with sophomore Tiffeny Parker to jettison the Cougars into the early team with 12 points. Wayland Baptist University (Texas) is second with 8 points while Malone College (Ohio) is third with 6.
Golcevska, a Slovakian native who came to Azusa Pacific by way of Santa Monica (Calif.) City College, was last year’s NAIA runner-up in both the indoor pentathlon and outdoor heptathlon, and while the All-America recognition that comes with a second-place finish is rewarding, it still wasn’t an NAIA title. Fueled by last year’s narrow misses, a stronger and faster Golcevska returned to the NAIA championships this year with a single focus, one that she communicated in quick fashion.
In the pentathlon’s opening event – the 60-meter hurdles – Golcevska blazed an 8.74 to break her own school record of 8.80 that she set last year. She then followed with personal records in the shot put (38’ 3½”) and the long jump (18’ 5¾”) to take a commanding lead through 4 of the 5 events. She needed only to cruise through the 800 meters to win the overall heptathlon, but instead she established a season-best at 2:31.15, and in the end beat the rest of the field by no less than 233 points.
“I gained a lot of confidence right from the start with my time in the hurdles,” said Golcevska. “That helped me the rest of the way today. The records are nice because it sets the table for others who come after me and motivates them to become better athletes.”
Golcevska actually trailed after the hurdles race. Shannon Hellman, a junior out of Black Hills State University and the pre-meet favorite to win the pentathlon, posted an 8.67 to take the early lead. And after a sub-par high jump in which she cleared just 4’ 11” (nearly 5 inches off her season best), Golcevska found herself in fourth place after 2 events. However, she roared back with impressive performances over the final 3 events to join Carmen Gage (1995) and Beltran (2004) as the only Cougars ever to win an NAIA pentathlon title.
“Whether or not I was in the lead was not my concern,” said Golcevska. “I was concentrating on myself and who I am in God and what he has given me,” said Golcevska. “It was really a whole new approach for me after getting baptized last year. I gave every jump and every race to God.”
After 3 events, Azusa Pacific owned the top 3 spots on the heptathlon leader board with Parker second and senior Capree Bell in third. However, the long jump and 800 meters took their toll on the 2 Cougars and only a PR of 2:45.85 (16 seconds behind the winner) in the 800 allowed Parker to hang on for fifth place and secure 2 more points for Azusa Pacific. Still Parker registered a career-best 3,337 points (sixth best score in Cougar history) to beat Hellman by just a point.
“As you can see, the 800 is not one of my stronger events,” said a smiling Parker, “but overall, for my first national meet, I’m satisfied with what I did. Zora is like the best training partner I could ask for. There is no one stronger that I could train with, and I’ll be sad when she leaves. But we’re going to go 1-2 next year.”
Parker literally leaped into title contention with one of the best long jumps in school history, going 18’ 3¼”, the seventh best mark in program history.
“My landing really surprised me today,” added Parker. “Coach (Kevin) Reid has had us working a lot on our landings in practice and it really showed up here.”
The pentathlon was the only event final on the Thursday docket. The men completed the first day of the 2-day heptathlon where Cougars Casey Stevick and David Pichler are currently third and fourth heading into Friday’s final 3 events. Stevick established PRs in all 4 events today, including a mark of 21’ 8” in the long jump and heave of 38’ 10½” in the shot put. He has 2,841 points and sits just 146 points behind first-day leader Jonathon Hilton of Oklahoma Baptist University. Pichler is a mere 11 points behind Stevick at 2,830, garnered on the strength of 3 PRs and a season-best effort. Pichler mustered up a 3-inch PR in the high jump, clearing 6’ 2¼” to cap a day that begin with a lifetime best effort of 7.16 in the 60 meters.
The heptathlon concludes Friday with the 60-meter hurdles (a Pichler strength), the pole vault and the 1000 meters.
“Pichler and Stevick both competed very well today,” said Cougar men’s head coach Kevin Reid. “They’ve put themselves in position to fight for the championship and especially All-American honors.”
The rest of Thursday’s competition featured the preliminaries of the 3 men’s and women’s relays – 4x400 meters, 4x800 meters, and distance medley. And while preliminary races are typically an exercise in formality while waiting for a rare “car crash,” Azusa Pacific nonetheless put a thrill in several relay races, setting the stage for what could be some impressive showings the rest of the meet.
The Cougar men won all 3 of their heats, but each time they had to rally from deep deficits to come up with dramatic victories. Eleven-time All-American Caleb Lynch used his vast championship experience to began the wave of comebacks by storming from fifth place over the final 120 meters and into the lead at the finish line in the 4x800 where the Cougars posted a season-best 7:50.25. Junior Anthony Logan followed with an equally impressive effort in the 4x400, coming from fourth place to have the Cougars take the heat with another season best of 3:17.07. NAIA champion Aron Rono completed the amazing string of comebacks with a methodical yet no less impressive rally in the distance medley relay. Rono took the baton in sixth place and then had a mile to catch the leader, and he did so with still a half-a-lap remaining in the race. Rono and his mates led their heat with another season-best effort of 10:03.11.
“The relays weren’t spectacular given the position we put each of our anchors in,” said Reid, “but they got us into the finals, and if everything falls into place in the other events, we’ll have something to answer with at the end of the meet come Saturday when it ends with the DMR and 4x4.”
Additionally, the Cougar men were aided by a couple of those “car crashes.” Lindenwood University, the 2005 and 2006 NAIA champion, failed to advance its heavily favored distance medley and 4x800 relays while St. Gregory’s College (Oklahoma) did not move along one of the NAIA’s best 4x400 squads. Their absence in the finals opens up points for the taking.
Not be lost in the men’s shadow, the Cougar women, led by All-American Jaime Canterbury and newcomer Becca Reyes staged their own comebacks in the DMR and 4x800, respectively. The Cougars had to finish in the top 2 of their DMR heat to advance, but when Canterbury took the baton she was a distant fourth with fifth-place breathing down her neck. One-by-one she clicked off foes in front while running away from her pursuer over the mile run. In the end, she got her Cougars that second-place finish and advancement with a season-best time of 12:13.94, the seventh best time in program history.
Meanwhile Reyes rallied Azusa Pacific from deep in the back during her second-leg 800-meter run with a sizzling time and gave the baton to All-Americans Olivia Richert and then Whitney Jacobsmeyer in good position for the Cougars to clock a 9:19.93.
Azusa Pacific now heads into the finals in each relay with the best prelim times in the women’s 4x800 and men’s DMR.
“The girls are picking up where they left off last year when they won the NAIA outdoors,” said Azusa Pacific women’s coach Mike Barnett. “Both relays got the big ‘Q’ (qualify) as we call them, and we’re in the lead. It’d be nice to keep that lead until Saturday night.”
Reid concurred. “All in all, it’s been a great start to the championship meet.”