AZUSA, Calif. -- History is there for the taking. If only it was easy to grab.
Azusa Pacific, the most dominant program in NAIA track & field, has won 6 of the past 8 NAIA men’s indoor championships, including the past 3 in a row, and no school has ever won 7 titles in a 9-year span. Additionally, only 2 schools – Jackson State and Wayland Baptist -- have won 4-or-more consecutive NAIA indoor championships.
So here sits Azusa Pacific at the 45th Annual NAIA Men’s Indoor Track & Field Championship Meet poised to make history again when the 3-day meet gets under way today in the “Mini Dome” on the campus of East Tennessee State University with 4 prelim races and the first day of the heptathlon.
But history isn’t easy to grab, write, or just plain make.
Just 11 Cougars, the smallest contingent for an NAIA championship meet in many years, are in Tennessee this week. And the team competition seems to be a tad more challenging this year than in years past.
“We’re a little short on horsepower,” said Azusa Pacific Men’s Head Coach Kevin Reid, “but it’s a solid 11, and we should be in the hunt to bring home a trophy.”
Which specific trophy among those presented to the top 4 finishing teams has yet to be determined, but despite competing in just 11 of the 21 championship events staged, Azusa Pacific is clearly among the top 4 competing teams.
It’s 11-man championship meet roster features 9 All-Americans, including 3 individual champions – pole vaulter Jordan Savidge, triple jumper Monti Sutton and high hurdler Cedrique Smith -- and 2 pre-meet event favorites, sophomores Abednego Magut (5000 meters) and Casey Stevick (heptathlon).
Even still, Reid is concerned it may not be enough to catch Wayland Baptist, which appears to be the favorite to win its first indoor championship since 1989. Also prowling for a national title are Azusa Pacific’s usual rivals, Oklahoma Baptist University and Dickinson State University (N.D.).
“Wayland Baptist is very strong and very deep,” said Reid, “but if get some guys to perform above and beyond what is expected we could be pushing for the championship.”
Without a relay in its arsenal, Azusa Pacific will have to mount a significant lead and then hope it can hang on as meet closes Saturday afternoon with the distance medley and 4x400-meter relays.
All-American senior Staphon Arnold will be the busiest Cougar in Johnson City, competing in a total 9 events, of which only 3 will score for the Cougars. Arnold is among the favorites to win the unpredictable high jump. He’ll also go after points in the long jump but only after he completed the 2-day, 7-event heptathlon, an event that he picked up on a lark back in January and now has become the second best in the event behind his teammate Stevick.
“We’ve always talked about Staphon doing a heptathlon or decathlon because we knew he had good speed and he came to Azusa Pacific as a pole vaulter,” said Reid. “We put him in a heptathlon back in February because it started on a Friday and he couldn’t compete Saturday in a regular meet yet he wanted to get in a high jump mark. He did so well on the first day, we decided to give a full heptathlon a try the next week, and he came up with the second best mark this season.”
The heptathlon will be the Cougars strongest showcase in the meet. Azusa Pacific enters with the 3 top marks of the season, Stevick with 4,983 points, Arnold at 4,876, and junior Jeff Altizer 4,864.
All told, Azusa Pacific has won 7 NAIA indoor championships, collecting its first in 1996, and combined with the Cougars’ 15 outdoor crown, the 22 NAIA track & field championships are far and away the most in NAIA history.