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Chasing a Cougar

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March 7, 2008
Gary Pine
JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. – Azusa Pacific is right where it wants to be. However, it’s 24 hours too early.

After 2 days of competition in a 3-day affair, both the Cougar men’s and women’s teams are in the lead at the NAIA Indoor Track & Field Championships in the Minidome on the campus of East Tennessee State University.

Through 6 event finals Azusa Pacific leads the men’s team race with 19.75 points. Siena Heights University (Mich.) is second with 17.75 while Langston University (Okla.) is third with 16 followed by Oklahoma Baptist University at 14.

On the women’s side, the Cougars sit atop the leader board with 21 points. Wayland Baptist University (Texas) is second with 18, followed by Concordia University (Neb.) with 15 and Goshen University (Ind.) at 12.

Heptathletes David Pichler and Casey Stevick highlighted the Cougar men’s vault into the lead today by finishing second and fifth, respectively, in the heptathlon for a combined 10 points. Pichler scored a school-record 5,228 points, using personal-bests today in the pole vault (14’ 7¼”) and the 1000 meters (2:50.63) to hold on for second in an intense competition in which the top 4 finishers all surpassed the former NAIA record of 4,921.

“We were shooting for first place but I could not have asked for a better meet,” said Pichler. “I came in here saying I wanted this meet to be a gift to God, to do the best I could and leave it on the track, and I did. I did the best I could.”

The freshman Stevick was equally impressive as the only underclassman to finish among the top 10 in the 16-man heptathlon field, coming in fifth with a personal-best 4,898 points that caught the attention of the crowd.

“He’s going to be something,” said Ford Masten, head coach at Oklahoma Baptist. “You’ve got something there in Stevick.”

Pichler and Stevick, both Washington natives, formed a powerful one-two heptathlon punch, and one couldn’t help but wonder if this is the beginning of the passing of Azusa Pacific decathlon torch, going from the senior Pichler to the rookie Stevick.

“I think there’s some truth to that,” said Pichler, who accepted the torch from Cougar legend and Olympic silver medalist Bryan Clay. “You know 10½ size shoes (Clay’s foot size) can actually be pretty big shoes to fill. Casey, though, has all the right tools. He definitely has the right mindset. He’s smart. He’s coachable, and he has his priorities straight.”

Azusa Pacific picked up a bonus 1.75 points in the high jump when Staphon Arnold repeated as an All-American with a season-best leap of 6’ 6¾”, good enough for a 3-way tie for fourth place.

“I like this runway,” said Arnold when asked to explain why his 2 All-America honors both came in the Minidome. “It’s pretty fast, and it’s good. I felt good in warm-ups, and I just got new shoes so I felt psyched about that. The whole experience today was pretty awesome.”

The Cougars capped their scoring for the day with a surprising second-place finish in the 4x800-meter relay, clocking a season-best 7:41.98 to tally 8 more points. While senior Caleb Lynch gutted out an outstanding anchor leg in which he rallied the team from fourth place into second by bypassing the Oklahoma Christian University and Oklahoma Baptist University anchors over the final 120 meters, it was freshman Travis Fernandes who set the tone with a 2-second PR on the opening leg, a nice personal comeback after a near disastrous slow leg during Thursday’s prelims. Fernandes’ effort is all the more notable given the fact that it was only last night that he learned he was replacing NAIA champion Aron Rono in the relay finals. Rono carries a busy docket for Saturday and Cougar coach Kevin Reid took the gamble to rest Rono and put Fernandes back on the relay despite Thursday’s performance.

“Travis’ leg tonight was unreal,” said Reid. “He put us behind yesterday, but he handed off in the lead today. For a freshman who wasn’t expecting to run that race and for us to only give up 2 points, that’s huge.”

The relay effort helped the Cougars offset from some stumbles in the day. Neither Cougar hurdler Cliffton Gay nor Jordan Burnette advanced into Saturday’s finals of the 60-meter high hurdles. Gay entered the meet with one of the best times in the NAIA this yearm but he couldn’t flash his 8.15 speed after getting bumped by Nate Scott of Shorter College (Scott eventually fell), finishing instead with an 8.67.

In the 30-pound weight throw James Ferguson fouled out, though he may have been hard-pressed to score anyway, needing a personal-best just to garner a point, and Lynch was the odd man out in the 1000-meter prelims, missing the finals by .03 of a second.

Azusa Pacific wasn’t the only title-contending team to suffer setbacks. Both Doane College (Neb.) and Oklahoma Baptist didn’t score as much as they had hoped in Friday’s finals, and like Azusa Pacific both schools didn’t get some expected advancements through today’s preliminary races. In addition, Dickinson State University produced a surprising victory in the long jump and then got a few key advancements into Saturday’s finals to vault the Blue Hawks into the title picture.

“Right now it’s a plus-or-minus 5-point gap between us, Doane, Oklahoma Baptist and Dickinson State to win this thing tomorrow,” said Reid. “This one is pretty tight, and the separation is going to come in events where you have unexpected results tomorrow.”

Likewise the Cougar women have a slim lead after 2 days, tallying 21 points through 6 events. Wayland Baptist University (Texas), one of the Cougars’ chief rivals for the national championship, is second with 18 points, while Concordia University (Neb.) is third with 15. Lurking in sixth place is Simon Fraser University (10 points), primed to overtake everyone tomorrow with an onslaught that could be worth as much as 65 points.

“Obviously we did some good things today,” said Cougar women’s coach Mike Barnett, “but we could be a little behind in our points after 2 days. Simon Fraser is the one to beat because they have the least amount to do tomorrow with the freshest legs, and they have a lot of event leaders in terms of marks coming into the meet.”

Azusa Pacific added 9 points today to the 12 it gathered during Thursday’s opening competition. The Cougar 4x800-meter relay finished second to Wayland Baptist in what could prove to be a key 4-point swing in the team championship pursuit. All 4 Cougars -- Becca Reyes, Olivia Richert, Whitney Jacobsmeyer and Jaime Canterbury -- ran 2:19 legs. Wayland Baptist ran an 11-second season-best to knock off the Cougars, who entered the meet with the NAIA’s leading time this season.

Azusa Pacific collected its other point in the 20-pound weight throw where Ruthie Wilhelm picked up her fifth All-America honor by finishing sixth with a heave of 52’ 6”.

In preliminary races, Zora Golcevska, who yesterday won the pentathlon with a school-record performance, came back today to move into the finals of the 60-meter hurdles with an 8.99 in the prelims followed by an 8.92 in the semis later in the day. SophomoreJacky Kipwambok moved along in both the mile and 5,000 meters. She’ll be joined by Richert in the mile. In the 3,000 meters, Canterbury and Jacobsmeyer punched their tickets for Saturday’s final, while Reyes pulled the surprise of the day for the Cougars by moving into the finals of the 800 with a personal-best 2:17.03.

Freshman Mandy Ross looked strong in her 400-meter semi, posting a qualifying 57.36.

“Mandy is excited about Saturday’s finals,” said Barnett. “She said, ‘I’m going after the win.’ I don’t know if she can get a girl who runs a 55 400, but her just saying that is awesome. That’s what I want to hear from a freshman.”

The final day of competition and the races to the men’s and women’s NAIA national championships begin Saturday at 10 a.m. (EST) with the women’s shot put. Live results of the competition can be followed on the Internet.