Over the past 44 years only 2 schools – Southern University and Eastern New Mexico University – have swept the NAIA indoor and outdoor men’s track & field national championships in back-to-back years.
Led by eventual Olympic gold medalist Willie Davenport, Southern became the standard bearer by taking the NAIA indoor and outdoor crowns in 1966 and then repeating the effort again in 1967. Eastern New Mexico followed with an identical double-double during the 1970 and 1971 campaigns.
Since then, some 37 years running, no program has been able to repeat history, though some have come close, including Azusa Pacific when just 5 years ago the Cougars claimed the 2002 indoor and outdoor NAIA titles and followed with the 2003 indoor championship in hand only to be denied the outdoor crown.
So as the 2009 season opens, Azusa Pacific again steps into the spotlight of history. Already the NAIA’s winningest program ever and the owner of several historic accomplishments, Azusa Pacific is seeking yet another unique claim, joining Southern and Eastern New Mexico in successive sweeps of the NAIA’s track & field kingdom. The Cougars are the reigning champions of NAIA indoor and outdoor track & field, collecting the program’s 21st and 22nd national championships last year.
With 24 athletes back from last year’s championship team, including senior Aron Rono, a 3-time honoree as the most outstanding male performer of an NAIA championship meet, Azusa Pacific certainly is in position to contend for 2 more national titles and a piece of NAIA history. The pressure is on … or is it?
“Our standard is a national championship every year,” said Azusa Pacific’s 14-year head coach Kevin Reid. “There’s always pressure there to be at least at that level and competing for it.”
Rono is 1 of 5 All-Americans back for the Cougars, and who in essence eases some of pressure in the title pursuit. Rono has won 13 of the past 14 races he has run on the NAIA championship level. A year ago he had a hand in 30 of the 64¾ points the Cougars tallied in winning the indoor championship. He came back 3 months later to register 30 of the Cougars’ 61 at the outdoor meet, becoming the first collegian ever to win the 1500-, 5000- and 10,000-meters in a championship meet.
“Aron is still the center of the team,” said Reid, “and if we’re centering a team on him, then we should be one of the teams people are talking about in terms of a national championship.”
The reigning 2-time NAIA cross country champ and a 16-time All-American in track & field, Rono is the finest distance runner in Azusa Pacific history as the owner of 4 school records. He is seeking to become the first athlete in NAIA history to win 4 individual titles in both the indoor mile and the outdoor 10,000.
However, the Cougars’ quest for NAIA supremacy can not rest upon Rono alone. In fact, Reid has put together a balanced 45-athlete roster that should offer Azusa Pacific one of its most across-the-board attacks in several years.
As expected the Cougars will be well-represented in the multi-events – decathlon and heptathlon – and they should show well in the jumps. Rono anchors a solid distance program, and for the first time in several years the Cougar are hoping to score in the sprints and relays while putting some stock in the risky yet high-return pole vault.
“Cross country success typically translates into indoor track success because of the middle distance orientation of indoor track & field,” said Reid. “So I think the indoor season bodes well for us. We lose that strength in the outdoor campaign but for the first time in a few years we’ll have a chance to replace those lost indoor strengths with the outdoor sprints.”
All-American returnees Staphon Arnold (high jump), Monti Sutton (triple jump) and Casey Stevick (mult-events) team with Rono to lead the Cougar parade of returnees who will press for individual titles in their strong events. Former Cougar All-American Brian Arnold joins the coaching staff to oversee the jumpers, allowing Reid to focus on the decathletes.
“Having a jump specific coach like Brian to work with Monti and Staphon day in and day out will add a lot to what both of them can do,” said Reid. “Staphon has the ability to win the NAIA high jump, and Monti is coming off a breakthrough season in which he led the outdoor triple jump going into the final 3 jumps of the event.”
Stevick fashioned a fine 2008 freshman season in which he garnered the attention of NAIA coaches by finishing fifth in the indoor heptathlon (4,898 points) to collect his first All-America honor and then coming back in the outdoor season to finish eighth in the decathlon (6298). Newcomer Chris Brown, the 2006 California state junior college decathlon champion out of Hartnell College, returns to track & field after a 3-year layoff yet with high expectations to team with Stevick and give Azusa Pacific a powerful punch in the multi-events.
Sophomore Jeff Altizer, senior Devyn Wills and sophomore David Guzman offer great depth in the heptathlon and decathlon.
“Several of these guys will qualify for the NAIAs and that should certainly help Stevick and Brown to have a presence of their teammates side-by-side on the national level,” said Reid. “I can see Stevick scoring around 7,200 or 7,300 in the decathlon which would make him hard to beat, and Brown pushing 7,000. He is a raw athletic talent who will only get significantly better as the season continues.”
Where Azusa Pacific has bolstered itself is in the pole vault and the sprints, once staples of success in Cougar track & field but that has been somewhat dormant in recent years. The program has produced just one pole vault all-American in the past 7 years after collecting 10 in a 13-year span. In addition, Azusa Pacific registered 35 All-America honors in the short sprints during the 1980s and 1990s but just 5 since the start of the new millennium.
Newcomers Jordan Savidge, the 2007 state junior college champ out of Mt. San Antonio College, and Daniel Fanelli, a 2-time Arizona high school state champ, bring instant credibility in the pole vault and team with developing returnees Chris Ernst and Altizer to form a quartet of vaulters who could all qualify for the NAIA championships. Savidge is a 17-foot vaulter, making him an immediate contender for the NAIA title, while Fanelli, out of Valley Christian High in Chandler, Ariz., cleared a state 2A record 15’ 6” last spring.
“Jordan has been off for a year and Daniel is young, so consistency early in the season may be an issue,” said Reid, “but the pole vault is going to be key for us.”
A year ago Rono made collegiate history with his rare championship triple at the NAIA Outdoor Meet. With the arrival of fellow Kenyan Abednego Magut, also an NAIA cross country All-American this past fall, and the emergence of junior Forest Lewton, Reid doesn’t believe Rono will need to repeat such a triple this year. He will certainly run the 10,000 meters where he is seeking to become the first athlete in NAIA history to win 4 10K titles. Depending on the Cougars’ needs he will run either the 1500- or 5000-meters. On the indoor circuit, he is looking for another rare quadruple crown by taking the mile while also running the 3000.
“The luxury with Aron is that we can run him just about anywhere depending on the depth and strength of the field and our needs,” said Reid.
Cross country All-Americans Magut and Lewton, who finished third and 20th at the NAIA championship in November, give Azusa Pacific strength and versatility in the distances. Magut is likely to double and with Lewton, a strong and enduring runner, in the steeplechase, Azusa Pacific has a chance to score in all the outdoor distance events save the marathon.
The return of sophomore Rocky Richardson, who sat out the cross country season, and senior John Phiel, a veteran of several national championship meets, give the Cougars a quality presence in the 800 meters.
The 2-time reigning NAIA champ in the indoor’s distance medley relay, Azusa Pacific will gun for a third consecutive crown with an eye on the meet record at 9:56.
In the hurdles, freshman Cedrique Smith is impact athlete from the start. Smith, who clocked a personal best of 13.97 in the 110-meter hurdles during his senior year at Agua Fria High, finished fifth at the 2008 U.S. National Junior Olympic Championships (14.12) in Omaha, Neb. He was also the Arizona state high school 4A champ in the 110 hurdles (14.43), 300 hurdles (38.25) and long jump. Brown, who was the leading rusher on the Cougar football team this past fall, also doubles as a hurdler and should contend with Smith for All-America recognition.
“Cedrique will be a factor for us from the get-go,” said Reid, “and in the past Chris was a really fine hurdler. It’s been 3 years since he’s hurdled, but he looked good in the fall.”
Newcomers Matt Crego, a transfer from Santa Barbara City College, and freshman Zachary Keene of Cedar Park Christian High in Bothell, Wash., shore up a Cougar sprint program that last year was carried alone by All-American Anthony Logan. Crego was the 2008 Western States Conference 400-meter champ with a personal-best time of 48.78. Keene is the reigning Washington high school 1A/2A champion in the 100- (10.77) and 200-meters (21.62). Logan excels in the 400 and 600 and is a possible NAIA titlist in the longer race.
“If Zach just duplicates the times he posted last year, he’ll be an NAIA All-American in both sprints this year,” said Reid. “Crego reminds me a lot of Logan. If we keep him on the same path, we can be as good as any team in the NAIA in the 400 and relays.
Azusa Pacific has depth in the 4x400-meter relay and could be looking at a rare national title in either or both the indoor and outdoor races.
Last spring Azusa Pacific became the first school in Golden State Athletic Conference history to win 10 straight conference titles in one sport when the Cougars ran away with the men’s track & field championship. Point Loma Nazarene University can match the Cougars’ depth on the track and will press Azusa Pacific in its pursuit of an 11th straight GSAC crown and the 15th in the 23-year history of the GSAC.
Nationally, the Cougars expect to contend with the usual list of challengers, Oklahoma Baptist, which a year ago Azusa Pacific edged for the NAIA indoor crown by just three-quarters of a point for the closest finish in association history, Doane College (Neb.), and Dickinson State University (N.D.).
“Until we know what everyone returns or brings in, it’s hard to say who the favorite is for the championships,” said Reid. “Based on the history of the NAIA indoor and outdoor meets, I think we have a title-contending team.”
A team for the ages is yet to be determined, but certainly Azusa Pacific understands what lies out ahead.