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A Fractional Championship

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March 8, 2008
Gary Pine
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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. – If track & field got any better than this they’d televise meets every Sunday and air-million dollar ads between events. Images of silhouetted sprinters would be marketing icons, and autographed broken poles would become collector’s items.

This is what a track & field meet is meant to be, even if it comes with a broken heart.

Azusa Pacific University is the 2008 NAIA men’s indoor track & field national champion, capturing the title Saturday afternoon in the Minidome on the campus of East Tennessee State University. It is the Cougars’ fifth national indoor crown in the past 7 years and their sixth overall, all coming since 1996.

On the other hand, Azusa Pacific is also the 2008 NAIA women’s indoor track & field national runner-up.

And the difference between the two -- between having 2 championship trophies or none at all -- comes down to less than a second of time.

All other sports can have their “matter of inches.” This was fractions of a second. The difference between jubilation and torture.

In an ironic turn of events that took 3 days to develop, Azusa Pacific’s chances of a rare men’s and women’s sweep of the NAIA indoor titles came down to the final 2 events in both championship meets. The Cougars led on both sides of the aisle, but not by much.

The Cougar men led Oklahoma Baptist University by just 1¾ point, 53¾ to 52, with the distance medley and 4x400-meter relays the only remaining events on the docket. And as the track powers-that-be would have, the Cougars and Bison were going head-to-head in both events.

Azusa Pacific got the opening advantage, winning the DMR because a fabulous anchor leg by All-American Aron Rono, who took the baton in fifth place (2 spots behind Oklahoma Baptist) and in short order cut down the field and assumed the lead, which he never relinquished, running away to give Azusa Pacific the win (10:04.37) and the 10 team points that come with it. OBU finished third and tallied 6 points, now falling 5¾ points behind the Cougars.

The drama was excruciating.

Fifteen minutes after the DMR, the 2 schools stepped back onto the track for the 4x400, in which OBU had to at least finish second to snake the national championship from Azusa Pacific. The Bison entered the finals with the third best time from the prelims.

Azusa Pacific countered in the 4x400 with a makeshift group that had never run together before and that had to feature the gassed legs of Anthony Logan on the opening 400 and Caleb Lynch on the anchor.

Early in the race, OBU moved into second place with the Cougars squarely in fourth. The Bison briefly took the lead at one point while the Cougars fell to fifth. By the anchor, OBU was in third, desperately chasing second-place Doane College (Neb.). The Cougars, in the meantime, had fallen back to the sixth and final spot. As the anchors made the final turn for the finish line, Doane’s Greg Torres held off OBU’s Ross Harlan by just .45 of a second. OBU was third and Azusa Pacific last, but the Cougars were first in the meet, winning the national championship by the narrowest of margins in the 43-year history of NAIA indoor track & field, 64¾ to 64.

“As stressful as it is, that’s just the best way to win a national championship,” said Azusa Pacific coach Kevin Reid, who was named the NAIA Men’s Indoor Track & Field Coach of the Year. “It tests you and it tests the kids when it comes down to matching performance-for-performance in every event with another quality team like OBU.”

Tempered against the thrill of the moment is what transpired against the Cougar women just minutes earlier.

The Cougar women held a 1-point advantage, 64-63, over Wayland Baptist University (Texas) and, like the men, all that remained were the distance medley relay, in which the Cougars were represented but not WBU, and the 4x400-meter relay, in which WBU was competing but not Azusa Pacific. Whoever performed better in their respective relay would be the national champion.

Azusa Pacific went first and produced a third-place finish in the DMR (12:00.78), good for 6 team points and now a 7-point lead in the overall team standings. Wayland Baptist had to answer with nothing less than a second-place showing in the 4x400, otherwise Azusa Pacific would have its third indoor crown in the past 6 years. The Pioneers were good, but they entered the event with the third–best time from the prelims, a promising stat for the idle Cougars, who could do nothing now but watch, wait and hope.

While the Oklahoma Baptist women grabbed the early 4x400 lead and never let go, Wayland Baptist found itself in a battle with Cedarville University (Ohio) for second place. The Yellow Jackets overtook WBU on the third leg but the Pioneers’ Demetrice Gilliam immediately answered and by the time she gave the baton to anchor Kimberly Smith, WBU was back in second for the final 400 meters. Smith, who earlier in the meet set an NAIA record in the 60-meters (7.32), fought off Cedarville’s Keri Hilty, beating her by .8 of a second to tally 8 team points for WBU and earn the national championship for the Pioneers. Wayland Baptist beat Azusa Pacific, 71-70, in the overall standings, for the second closest finish in the 23-year history of NAIA women’s indoor track & field championships.

“Obviously I’m a little disappointed, taking second place by a point” said Azusa Pacific women’s coach Mike Barnett. “However, if I look at the meet as a whole and how the women competed, they competed out of their minds. We had plenty of lifetime PRs, seasonal bests, and so they did exactly what they had to do, and they know it. Still it’s tough to swallow, watching the dream slip away.”

In meets this close, it’s easy to find turning points; opportunities seized and others missed.

For the Cougar men perhaps no bonus performance was more important than that of senior James Ferguson, who in the shot put today, on his final put as a Cougar, beat longtime rival Paul Castaneda of Concordia University (Calif.) and win his first-ever NAIA championship after claiming 6 previous All-American honors. It proved to be a critical 2-point swing for Azusa Pacific and Ferguson, who had beaten Casteneda only one other time in their 3-year head-to-head competition and regularly finished second to Casteneda.

“This is awesome,” said the first-time national champ Ferguson. “It is way more than I could ask for. This is definitely a fun way to go out. I enjoy throwing against Paul. He’s one of the best, and it’s fun because he raises the bar.”

Then again Ferguson’s key contribution toward the team title may have been for naught without Staphon Arnold’s season-best effort in Friday’s high jump when he tied for fourth and split 6 team points 4 ways, giving the Cougars an additional 1¾ point.

“I told Staphon yesterday that we might appreciate that three-quarter point on Saturday or be crying over one-quarter point,” said Reid with a smile. “The three-quarters was the difference.”

Of course, fractions and split seconds would also have meant nothing had it not been for performance of the meet by Rono, who for the second straight year was named the NAIA’s Most Outstanding Male Performer at the indoor championship meet. Rono had a hand in 30 of the Cougars 64¾ points, and he tallied all of them today. He repeated as NAIA champion in the men’s mile (4:09.46) and came back 2 hours later to win the 3000-meters (8:17.87), never being threatened in either race. His winning anchor leg in the DMR had the Minidome abuzz, chewing up a field that seemed to be standing still as he ran by.

“There was a lot on his shoulders, and he came through carrying a ton,” said Reid. “I had every confidence in him that if had to run a 3:57 in the mile to win the DMR, that’s what he would have done”

While the heartbreak is intense for the Cougar woman, the consolation comes in knowing they staged perhaps the best show they could to put themselves in position for the national crown.

Senior Zora Golcevska, who won the pentathlon on Thursday, came back today to break her own school record in the 60-meter hurdles (8.70), while surprising the field with a second-place finish – an addition 8 points to the Cougar cause.

“The start was probably one of the best I’ve ever had, especially for indoors,” said Golcevska, who came back later in the day to earn the Cougars an additional point with an All-American performance and personal-best effort in the high jump (5’ 5”). “I had unbelievable drive that was there at the time I needed it. That is probably that confidence that I was in the right rhythm of running.”

Freshman Mandy Ross, who just 3 months ago was penciled to sit out the season while recovering from an injury-plagued 2007, instead walked off the track this afternoon as an NAIA runner-up in the 400 meters (56.53), gutting out the final 50 meters to overtake second place.

“I left it all out on the track today,” said Ross. “That’s the most pain I’ve felt in a really long time. Coming into the meet, I just wanted to be an All-American. I thought that would be really cool. To be a national runner-up, the feeling is incredible.”

Junior Jaime Canterbury won the 3000-meters (10:10.40) for her first-ever NAIA title in track & field She overcame a 40-meter deficit and took the lead on the final 2 laps, pulling away for her first-ever NAIA track title.

“I knew going into it that if I stayed with the leader I could finish strong and win it,” said Canterbury, who later anchored the Cougars’ DMR. “The girl that took off went out pretty fast and I didn’t want go to out that quickly, so I just kind of slowly reeled her in. I didn’t panic.”

With the today’s NAIA national championship for the Cougar men, Azusa Pacific now has 29 NAIA championships, the third most in association history. Track & field has garnered 24 of them -- 6 men’s indoor, 13 men’s outdoor, 3 women’s outdoor and 2 women’s indoor. In addition, the Cougars have been the national runner-up 18 times.

“The tradition continues,” said Barnett in assessing Azusa Pacific’s overall performance for 3 days of NAIA indoor track & field, which included one amazing final day that ran the gambit of emotion.