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River Running for a Crown

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May 19, 2009
Gary Pine
AZUSA, Calif. – Thirty-five athletes from the Azusa Pacific men’s and women’s track & field programs head to the heartland this week in the 58th Annual NAIA Outdoor Track & Field Championships on the campus of Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville along the famed Mississippi River and across from St. Louis, where the Cougars will be housed for the meet.

The Cougar men are gunning for their second straight NAIA outdoor crown and their record 15th championship while the women have their eyes on a fourth outdoor title since 2003.

The 3-day meet opens Thursday (May 21) and concludes Saturday (May 23).

Fourteen-time NAIA champion and national record-holder Aron Rono leads the parade of Cougar men, who are favored to win the meet but will receive strong challenges from Dickinson State University (N.D.) and Oklahoma Baptist University. Rono will shoulder much of the Cougars’ expectations as he seeks to repeat his unique triple of a year ago when he became the first collegian on any level to win the 1500-, 5000- and 10,000-meter races in the same championship meet.

“Certainly we have a lot riding on Aron,” said Cougar men’s coach Kevin Reid, “but I don’t believe there’s ever been anyone quite like him in the NAIA. To win all 3 this year will be harder because the field is stronger this time around, but if he can do it, we’ll certainly be in a favorable position.”

All-American Staphon Arnold and freshman Cedrique Smith will follow Rono’s steps in search of multiple All-America performances and perhaps even a pair of national titles. Arnold ranks among the NAIA’s best in the high jump (6’ 10¾”) this year and will run a leg on the Cougars’ 4x100-meter relay.

Though a collegiate rookie, Smith nonetheless owns the NAIA’s top time in the 400-meter hurdles (52.03) and is in the hunt to capture the 110-meter hurdles (14.08) crown as well.

Among other Cougars’ who will vie for individual titles are junior Jordan Savage in the pole vault (16’ 5”) and sophomore Casey Stevick in the decathlon (6,781 points).

Fifteen women are carrying the Cougar torch as the Azusa Pacific seeks to erase the pain of back-to-back 1-point shortfalls from the championship of the 2008 and 2009 NAIA indoor meets.

Distance runners extraordinaire Jaime Canterbury and Jacky Kipwambok, the finest distance duo in program history, could team to give Azusa Pacific victories in the 1500-, 5000- and 10,000-meters and combine for over 35 points.

The endurance of junior Tiffeny Parker will be put to the test when the All-American competes in 10 different events, 7 of which come in the heptathlon, and potentially runs 9 races in the course of 3 days. She’ll contend for victories in the heptathlon, triple jump and 100-meter high hurdles while running a leg on the Cougars’ 4x100-meter relay.

Defending national champion Wayland Baptist University is the pre-meet favorite but the Cougars are expected to give the Pioneers a run for the title while Oklahoma Baptist and Simon Fraser University should contend as well.

“We have a chance to win,” said Cougar women’s coach Mike Barnett, “but it will be close to the very end. We have to perform well where expected and perhaps and come up with some big performances in other events.”

The championship meet opens Thursday at 8 a.m. (PDT) with the finals of the women’s hammer throw and the beginning of the men’s decathlon competition.

Real-time results, the meet schedule, and complete team rosters are available on-line at the NAIA website. Click here for further information.