AZUSA, Calif. -- Azusa Pacific has been forewarned. Enter at its own risk the house of horrors known as the “Mini Dome” of Johnson City, Tenn., site of the 30th Annual NAIA Women’s Indoor Track & Field Championship.
In the “Mini Dome” heartbreak has no closer friend than the Cougars. Pain has no greater effect than on Azusa Pacific.
For the past 2 years Azusa Pacific has had a national championship snaked from its hand on the final event of the meet, and each time the loss was by a mere point and each time it was Wayland Baptist University committing the thievery. The Cougars watched in terror as Wayland Baptist beat the Cougars 71-70 in 2008 and then 68-67 last year, collecting just enough points in the 4x400 to rally past the Cougars, not once but a painful twice.
So the Cougars, armed and loaded once again to vie for a national championship, are forced to return to the “Mini Dome,” hoping this time to exorcise demons of the past but fully aware that this year’s title pursuit is likely to be just as close as the past 2 and the table is set for another calamity. They just hope it falls on someone else this time.
“This has the potential to be a great championship meet,” said Azusa Pacific Women’s Head Coach Mike Barnett. “There are 4 teams – Wayland Baptist, Azusa Pacific, Simon Fraser and Oklahoma Baptist – which could win the championship. However, we’re hoping to get that extra point this year and be that team that wins.”
Azusa Pacific is taking 14 women to the 3-day NAIA Indoor Championship Meet which opens Thursday (March 4) on the campus of East Tennessee State University. Heading the list are NAIA champions Jacky Kipwambok and Tiffeny Parker, who between them have the potential to score over 25 points.
Kipwambok, the reigning NAIA outdoor champ in the 5000- and 10,000-meter run, is among the favorites in this year’s indoor 3000-meters (10:14.77) and is a key component on the Cougars’ distance medley relay which enters the meet with the second-best time (12:01.29) in the NAIA this season.
Parker, who surprised the field last spring by winning the NAIA outdoor high hurdles crown, has the top 60-meter hurdles effort (8.73) this indoor season and is hoping to collect an additional point or 2 in the high jump. In the pentathlon she leads a trio of Cougars, all of whom are expected to score, including Parker who has the second best tally this season with 3,502 points.
In fact, Parker and her pentathlon mates – freshman Brianna Leslie and sophomore Emily Nash -- open the meet Thursday with an anticipation that they can jettison Azusa Pacific to a quick lead after the first day of competition, expand their cushion Friday, and then hold on to the lead with some key head-to-head competition during Saturday’s final day of competition.
“Friday is big for us,” said Barnett. “You can’t win the meet on Friday, but you sure can lose it. We need to put ourselves in a good position with Friday’s events.”
Key among the Friday events is the 4x800-meter relay which the Cougars enter as the No. 2-rated quartet and anchored by freshman Poppy Lawman. The Cougars clocked a 9:19.44 back in January. In front of them is Simon Fraser with its NAIA-leading 9:10.21. Right behind the Cougars is Wayland Baptist and its 9:23.83.
“There aren’t a lot of head-to-head competitions in the meet where run up against the other 3 teams,” said Barnett, “but the 4x8 is one of them and it can be a real momentum turner for any of us. We’ll see a lot of Wayland in the hurdles, and then run up against everyone again late in the meet with the DMR.”
Lawman and her 4x8 teammate Kayla Carstensen will go head-to-head against a pair of high-quality Simon Fraser runners in the 1000 meters. The 4 runners rank among the top 5 coming into the meet.
All-American junior Mandy Ross (60- and 200-meters) and sophomore Liz Schwartz (pole vault) should factor into the Cougars’ pursuit of that elusive point and a national championship.
“Seventy points is going to win this meet, and in the end it might be the low 60s that really wins the crown,” said Barnett. “Where is that extra point this year that we missed the past 2 years. My last hurrah to the girls before we open the meet on Thursday will be to challenge each one of them to step and be that one point. Whether it be clearing just one more bar, jumping 1 centimeter farther, or finishing one spot ahead in the race, that’s all it could take to win the championship.”
It’s all it took to not win it the past 2 years.
“There isn’t a girl on our team who won’t compete this weekend,” added Barnett. “This is pretty much the same group of athletes we’ve had the past 2 years. They know perhaps better than anyone else what it takes in a meet that is so close.”