EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. – Twenty-five years ago this weekend Azusa Pacific won its first-ever NAIA Men’s Outdoor Track & Field Championship, ushering in one of the greatest dynasties in association history.
The Cougars won 11 of the next 13 national championships, including an unprecedented 7 straight. Yet, it’s been 6 years since they have won an outdoor title, and though their NAIA supremacy has continued with 5 indoor track titles since 2002, none of the current Cougars have ever worn an outdoor crown.
“Yeah those indoor championships are great,” said senior hurdler Matt Sparks, “but everyone knows that track is about outdoors, and we’ve lost the outdoor championship every year I’ve been here. Something had to change.”
So Sparks broke out the old uniforms with the old school colors. Last month he stumbled upon a storage box full of the former black and orange uniforms that the Cougars wore while winning NAIA titles in the 1980s. (Azusa Pacific changed its school colors to brick and black in 1998). He gave one to each team member, and today, championship Saturday, the Cougars went retro – looking the like the Cougars of yesteryear and competing like them as well.
Inspired by Sparks and led by Aron Rono, Azusa Pacific scored 38 more points today and held on to win the NAIA Men’s Outdoor Track & Field Championship Meet at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. In all, the Cougars tallied 61 total points to capture a record 14th NAIA outdoor title, their first since 2002, and edge second-place Dickinson State University (N.D.) which finished with 58. Oklahoma Baptist, which had a chance to tie Azusa Pacific for the national title on the final event of the meet, was third with 55 while Doane College (Neb.) closed out the top 4 with 51 points.
“We’ve established our reputation through the outdoor championships but we’ve only been winning indoor titles lately,” said Azusa Pacific men’s coach Kevin Reid, “so Sparks and (David) Pichler wanted to reach back to that era, maybe pump up the guys with something different.”
Not that he really needed much inspiration anyway, but perhaps the flashback worked best for Rono, who made collegiate track & field history today and as a result was named the Most Outstanding Male Performer of the meet.
Rono, a Kenyan native, became the first athlete ever to win the 1500-, 5000-, and 10,000-meter runs in a national championship meet, using his extraordinary strength and endurance to win all 3 individual races in convincing fashion and tally 30 of Azusa Pacific’s 61 championship points.
Rono won the 10,000 meters Thursday evening and came back today to take the 1500 and 5000 in less than a 3-hour span. He averaged a 13-second gap from nearest competitor amongst the 3 races.
“I started thinking about this triple right after I won the 10K at the Mt. SAC Relays (in April),” said Rono. “It was the best race of my life, and I really felt strong afterwards. So I came in here confident that I could win all 3 races.”
The 5000-10,000 or 1500-5000 doubles are rather common attempts in track & field championship meets, but no competitor on the NCAA Division I, II, III and NAIA levels has ever has won a triple crown of distance races. The success of Rono’s unique triple hinged on the 1500 where he had little margin for error with less than 4 laps to establish his strategy and pace, an issue he knew well after getting boxed in last year’s championship meet and eventually finishing a disappointing fourth. Yet from the opening gun today, Rono assumed the lead and steadily pulled away from the pack, clocking a 3:46.35 to win the race by 2 seconds over Josh Foss of Indiana Wesleyan University
Likewise in the 5000, Rono grabbed the early lead and within 3 laps he had built a 20-meter cushion on his way to a 14:23.81, finishing nearly 10 seconds ahead of second place Evans Kiptoo from Lindenwood University.
“He is a special athlete, and this is an unbelievable triple,” said Reid. “While he was pursuing individual history, he also needed to win the 5000 for us to win the team title.”
Azusa Pacific rebounded from a frustrating Friday in which the Cougars left numerous points, and perhaps a national championship, on the track. They opened today’s competition tied for fourth place with athletes entered in only 5 of the 13 event finals scheduled for the day.
However, sophomore Monti Sutton stepped to the forefront to play the biggest role of his young Cougar track & field career. In the opening field event of the day, Sutton grabbed the early lead in the triple jump and held on through 4 rounds, and though he eventually finished third with a leap 48’ 4½”, the news of his early lead seemingly inspired the rest of the team as it arrived at the track.
“Monti got the ball rolling today for the rest of us,” said Sparks. “He was the wild card who stepped up, and he was huge.”
“We took some hits here and there yesterday, but Monti made up for it in a huge way in the triple jump,” said Reid. “We were down last night, but talk about about a momentum swing. Like our women last year when they won the national championship, Monti got us on a roll and it kept going and suddenly tired legs get picked up by emotion.”
Shortly after Rono’s opening win in the 1500, Sparks equaled Sutton’s effort with another third-place finish and an additional 6 points for the Cougars with a lifetime best 52.26 in the 400-meter hurdles. Fellow senior Jordan Burnette chipped in 2 more points by finishing seventh in the same race. In so doing, both Sparks and Burnette each edged an Oklahoma Baptist hurdler, giving Azusa Pacific a significant 6-point swing toward the team title race.
Junior Anthony Logan followed with a 47.38 in the 400 meters to finish fifth and tack on another 4 points to the Azusa Pacific tally board.
Rono then clinched at least a share of the team title with his victory in the 5000 meters, and when Oklahoma Baptist couldn’t answer with a victory in the 4x400-meter relay, the Cougars had their hands firmly clinched on the championship trophy.
“It was a steady effort all the way around,” said Reid. “Other than Aron’s triple, we didn’t do anything spectacular but we did what we were supposed to.”
Like the Cougar men, the Azusa Pacific women’s team suffered several key hits during Friday’s competition but weren’t able to rally during Saturday’s finals. Nonetheless, they finished fourth with 64 points. Wayland Baptist University (Texas) won the women’s championship with 80 points. Simon Fraser University (B.C.) was second with 69 and the University of British Columbia was third with 66. For the Cougars, it’s their tenth straight top-five finish at the NAIA Outdoor Championships.
Junior Jaime Canterbury was the star of the day, collecting 16 points for the Cougar cause. Before finishing third in the 5000 meters with a 17:20.97, she became Azusa Pacific’s first-ever NAIA 1500-meter champion by clocking a winning time of 4:26.64. With 200 meters to go, Canterbury pulled out from a tie with Bethany Carr of Olivet Nazarene University and used a monstrous kick to beat Carr by more than a second.
“I knew if I could stay on Carr’s shoulder on the turn that I could like sling shot my way past her,” said Canterbury. “I could feel I still had another gear to go to. The race set up perfect for me with a conservative pace. Bethany is a really good runner, and this really feels good because I’ve never beaten her before on the track.”
Sophomore Jacky Kipwambok was second in the 5000 meters with a 16:55.36.
Ruthie Wilhelm closed out an outstanding 4-year Cougar career with a personal-record effort in the shot put. She finished third with a put of 47’ 3¾” to pass her sister, Vanessa, and move into third place on Azusa Pacific’s all-time bests for the shot put. It’s the seventh All-America honor of her career.
Between its men’s and women’s programs and indoor and outdoor seasons, Azusa Pacific has now won 25 NAIA national championships in track & field. The Cougar women have collected 5, 3 outdoor and 2 indoor, all in the past 5 years, while the Cougar men have snagged the other 20.
For only the second time in program history, and the first time since 2002, the Cougar men swept the NAIA indoor and outdoor championships.