AZUSA, Calif. – And then there was one.
In the annals of Golden State Athletic Conference history, there has never been a decade of domination. Indeed, there have been 9-year runs atop of the conference standings first established by Westmont women’s tennis (1987-95) and then equaled by Azusa Pacific men’s basketball (1993-01).
But 10 years? A decade? Never.
Azusa Pacific men’s track & field became the first program in GSAC history to win 10 straight conference championships by rolling to another crown this weekend at the 22nd Annual GSAC Track & Field Championship Meet hosted by Azusa Pacific. The Cougars used a balanced effort across the sprints, jumps, throws and decathlon to rack up 259 points, averaging well over 11 points per event, and run away from second-place Point Loma Nazarene University, which finished nearly 100 points behind Azusa Pacific with a total of 163 points.
“We’ve been blessed,” said Kevin Reid, now in his 13th year as the head coach of Cougar men’s track & field. “I think our reputation precedes us and we’ve been fortunate to attract some very good talent throughout the years. And there’s no doubt that the conference is stronger today than it was when this run started. Schools like Point Loma, Concordia and Fresno Pacific have gotten stronger along the way, pressing us for the title each time and making the GSAC the best track & field conference in the NAIA.”
The Cougars won 8 of 22 event finals, including 4 of the 8 field events, but it was their 53-point explosion in the hurdles that set them apart from the rest of the competition and allowing Azusa Pacific to cruise to its tenth consecutive GSAC championship.
As expected past NAIA champion Matt Sparks led Azusa Pacific’s strong hurdle contingent by winning the 110-meter high hurdles with a season-best time of 14.29, the third fastest effort in GSAC meet history. However, in the 400-meter hurdles, Cougar senior Jordan Burnette shocked his teammates and the rest of the field by taking the intermediate hurdles with a career-best time of 52.12, breaking one of the longest-standing records in GSAC history, Kris Anderson’s (PLNU) 52.74 set on the same track back in 1989.
“I woke up this morning really feeling good,” said Burnette. “My body felt strong and fresh. Sparks kept telling me I was going to win the race. I don’t know that I was thinking meet record, but I knew this could be my best time ever.”
A native of Anchorage, Alaska, Burnette had never won a conference hurdle race and has spent his entire college career in the shadows of other great Cougar hurdlers, including Sparks, who ran side-by-side with Burnette the entire lap, pushing and prodding him and even yelling at Burnette down the homestretch to run away and win the race. Sparks finished second, besting the old GSAC standard as well with a 52.56.
“That was pretty neat to watch those two,” said Reid. “They’ve been training together the last 4 years, and while most of the glory has come Matt’s way, there’s something rather special in seeing Jordan not only get the victory today but also break a pretty unique record in his last race on this track.”
All-American decathlete David Pichler garnered an additional 13 points for Azusa Pacific with a pair of career-best efforts in both hurdle races. He finished second to Sparks in the 110 highs (14.52) and fourth in the 400 intermediates (54.43).
On a day that the 400-meter hurdles took center stage for Azusa Pacific, ironically the greatest Cougar intermediate hurdler – 1985 NAIA champion Brian Arnold – was in attendance at the GSAC meet, watching his son, Cougar sophomore Staphon Arnold collect more meet points than any other GSAC male athlete. The younger Arnold won his first-ever conference title by taking the high jump with a leap of 6’ 8”, edging defending champ Wes Wells of Fresno Pacific. Arnold also registered surprising second-place finishes in both the 200- (22.10) and 400-meters (career-best 49.17) and was personally responsible for 26 of the Cougars’ points.
“Staphon is developing into a rather good sprinter,” said Reid. “He did a little bit of sprinting in high school and didn’t like it, but I believe his feelings about sprinting are beginning to change.”
Fellow sophomore Monti Sutton successfully defended his GSAC title in the triple jump with a personal-best leap of 49’ 1”, the seventh best jump in Azusa Pacific history and the best in a GSAC meet since 1999. Earlier, Sutton finished second in the long jump with a personal-best effort of 22’ 6½”.
Like Burnette, thrower Evan Scott has oftentimes been lost in the shuffle of other Cougar standouts, but the senior stepped into the spotlight during the GSAC championship meet weekend by winning the hammer title with a season-best throw of 157’ 11” and then finishing second in the discus with a career-best effort of 148’ 1”.
Azusa Pacific’s remaining field event victory came off the shoulder of freshman Casey Stevick who took the javelin crown with a heave of 182’, beating his nearest competitor by more than 10 feet.
NAIA champion Aron Rono won the 1500 meters in meet-record fashion, clocking a 3:45.84 to break the conference’s 7-year record of 3:46.37.
With temperatures in the mid-90s during Saturday’s finals competition, and with the conference team championship well in hand, several Cougars opted out of finals, including Rono who chose to not run the 5,000 meters, an event in which he holds the NAIA’s leading time this year at 13:54.50.
Junior Devyn Wills closed out the Cougars’ individual event victories by successfully defending his conference crown in the decathlon with 5,674 points, becoming only the second person in GSAC history to win back-to-back decathlon championships.
“We had a good, strong overall performance,” said Reid. “It was a good weekend with good marks in spite of the hot temperatures.”
In the GSAC women’s championship meet, Azusa Pacific led for the first half of the 22-event competition, but Point Loma Nazarene used a script similar to the Cougar men, relying on the hurdle races (34 points in the 2 races) to overtake the field and run away for its second straight GSAC title, tallying 239 points. Azusa Pacific was second with 170.5.
The Cougars, though, set the stage for one of the best-ever collective showings by GSAC athletes, establishing the first of 4 eventual meet records set throughout the 2-day competition. The quartet of Victoria Martinez, Jacky Kipwambok, Jaime Canterbury and Olivia Richert blazed a 9:10.21 to not only win the 4x800-meter relay Friday evening but also break the GSAC (9:15.78) and stadium (9:15.65) records.
All-Americans Kipwambok and Canterbury came back on Saturday to run side-by-side throughout much of the 1500 meters race before Kipwambok pulled away over the final 300 meters to win with a 4:32.12. Canterbury was second with a 4:37.02.
Senior Ruth Wilhelm scored a meet-best 36 points. The 6-time NAIA All-American scored in all 4 throwing events, winning the shot put (45’ 11¾” – fourth best put in program history), and discus (season-best 148’ 9”) while finishing second in the hammer (152’ 3”) and javelin (season-best 123’ 9”).
Reigning NAIA pentathlon champion Zora Golcevska tallied 26.5 points on her own by winning the 100-meter hurdles (14.27) for the second consecutive year. She also scored in the long jump (career-best 18’ 10½” – second place), high jump (5’ 1¾” – third place), and javelin (113’ 0” – sixth place) and then ran the anchor on the Cougars’ 4x100-meter relay that finished fourth (51.49).
Senior Mandy Pohja cleared a season-best 11’ 1¾” to become only the second person ever to win back-to-back GSAC championships in the women’s pole vault.
All-American senior Megan Ilertsen garnered her first-ever GSAC crown by taking the hammer throw (162’ 10”).
Azusa Pacific takes next weekend off for graduation ceremonies and then returns to the track Saturday, May 10, at the Occidental Invitational in pursuit of finalizing rosters for the NAIA Outdoor Championships (May 22-24).