AZUSA, Calif. -- If not the women, it’s the men; and if it’s not the men, then it must be the women. That has seemingly become the pattern of Azusa Pacific track & field, the NAIA’s powerhouse school.
For decades the Cougar men were the premier program in the NAIA. Then 6 years ago the Cougar women put together a championship run of their own. In recent years, the men again have been at the top, but the pendulum appears to be swinging back toward the women.
The 2 programs are in Marion, Ind., this week for the NAIA Outdoor Track & Field Championships at Indiana Wesleyan University. The Cougar men will be hard-pressed to capture a third straight outdoor crown, but the hard-luck Cougar women are the pre-meet favorite to collect their fourth outdoor title in 7 years and their first since 2007.
Unlike their titles runs of 2003 and 2004 when they used domination in the field events to sweep the NAIA indoor and outdoor women’s championships, this year’s set of Cougars are counting on their strength in distance-running to lead them to what could be a hotly contested women’s championship.
“We’ve built our distance program over the past 3 years, and I’m fine leaning on it heading into nationals,” said Azusa Pacific coach Mike Barnett, the 3-time NAIA Outdoor Track & Field Women’s Coach of the Year. “There are about 4 teams in contention for the national title, and whichever one competes the best over the weekend will be the national champion.”
In the 5000- and 10,000-meter runs alone Azusa Pacific will depend on 3 All-Americans – seniors Jacky Kipwambok and Renee Graham and sophomore Lauren Jimison -- to hopefully grab half of the approximately 70 team points they are plotting as necessary to win the team championship. Though none of the trio heads into the meet with an NAIA-leading time in either event, all 3 rate among the NAIA’s top 5 this season in both events.
“Those 3 girls really feed off of each other and if we get 35 points out of the 5000 and 10,000, we’ll be elated, but I think we can do better,” said Barnett.
Ironically, Azusa Pacific’s title hopes focus on a pair of events in which the Cougars do not have much of a history. Just 3 Cougars ever have won All-America honors in either of 2 longest track races, and until Kipwambok’s sweep of the both races in last year’s NAIA meet, a Cougar had never won a 5000 or 10,000. Now, Azusa Pacific is filling its quiver with long-distance arrows.
The first final of the 3-day championship is the women’s 10,000, scheduled for late Thursday night. Sometimes scoffed as a long and uninteresting event, this year’s women’s 10,000 is expected to buck its reputation, and not just because Azusa Pacific’s title hopes will begin to take shape so early in the meet. Only 11 seconds separates the top 5 times in the field, meaning that Kipwambok (35:40.47), Jimison (35:49.34) and Graham (35:51.62) all have equal opportunities to pick off Concordia’s (Ore.) Alice Taylor (35:40.35) and Grand View’s (Iowa) Obsie Birru (35:50.18) in what could prove to be a thrilling sprint to the finish.
Azusa Pacific hopes to grab an early big lead with Thursday’s 10,000, knowing it’s advantage is likely to dwindle over the next 2 days of competition until late in the meet when the Cougars hope to clinch their front-runner status in the next-to-last event, the 5000-meters. Again, it will be Kipwambok, Jimison and Graham who will carry the Cougars hope for the crown. The triumvirate has posted 3 of the top 5 times in the 5000 but by having run a 10,000 just 48 hours before they will be challenged to be at the top of their running.
“Our training has gone well all season,” said Barnett, “and all 3 runners are tough competitors. Renee and Jacky are experienced, and while Lauren has run as many long races on the national level, she is doing very well and feeds off the other two. “
Shorter College (Ga.), Oklahoma Baptist University, and Simon Fraser University (B.C.) will press the Cougars for the women’s team title. In fact, Shorter’s hopes at a first-ever NAIA crown could also come down to the 5000 where Justyna Mudy, who won’t be in the 10,000 but will have run a couple of steeplechase races, is the favorite to win the event and give the Hawks 10 points.
“When we were putting together our entries, we guessed that Mundy might do the steeple/5,000 double and thus moved some of our people around to maximize our point potential,” said Barnett. “We guessed right, and hopefully it will pay off.”
Azusa Pacific has dealt with its fair share of heartbreak in recent NAIA championship meets, losing the 2008 and 2009 NAIA indoor championships by a single point to Wayland Baptist University (Texas) both times. WBU is the defending outdoor champion but the Pioneers aren’t likely to break the Cougars’ hearts again, though they are expected to contend for a top 7 finish.
“We have to be firing on all cylinders this weekend, but even then there is no guarantee we will win,” said Barnett. “We kind of know that all too well.”
In between Thursday’s start and Saturday’s close, All-Americans Mandy Ross and Tiffeny Parker should shine on the track. Ross, a junior out of San Diego, will be counted on to score in both the 100- and 200-meter sprints, while Parker will be among the favorites in the heptathlon. In the middle of her 7-event hep, she’ll defend her 100-meter hurdles title, an event she won last year for her first-ever NAIA individual championship.
Freshman Poppy Lawman is planning to put a perfect bow on a most surprising breakout season in which she has emerged as one the NAIA’s best distance runners after arriving at Azusa Pacific last fall as a relative unknown. Lawman owns the NAIA’s leading time this season in the 1500-meters (4:28.59) but she’ll be in a battle Lydia Wong (4:28.90) of Cedarville (Ohio) University.
Senior Stephanie Godfrey (marathon) and freshman Breanna Leslie (heptathlon) round out the Cougars’ potential scorers (top 8 finishers in each event) and All-Americans (top 6 finishers in each event).
It has been as long as perhaps 2 decades since the Cougar men have experienced a season with the injuries and setbacks that this year’s squad has had to endure, and the Cougars are far from full strength as they open this week’s NAIA championship meet. In fact, they may be battling just to finish in the top ten, a place where they have finished every NAIA meet since 1979.
“This has been pretty unique year for us,” said Azusa Pacific men’s head coach Kevin Reid, who led his team to their third straight NAIA indoor crown back in March. “We didn’t make a ton of changes from indoors, but we’ve been hit by random injuries from hamstrings to stress fractures.”
Of the Cougars best chances to win events – Abedengo Magut in the 10,000, Jordan Savidge in the pole vault and Casey Stevick in the decathlon – only Savidge is at full strength heading in the NAIA meet. Stevick is nursing a tender hamstring pull, and Magut has been hampered by a slow-healing foot injury over the past 2 weeks.
In addition All-American senior Anthony Logan has just been given a clean bill of health after an injury riddled season limited his availability, but whether or not he has the stamina to run at full strength in a trio of high-competition 400-meter races won’t be known until Saturday’s finals.
Likewise, sophomore Kyle Clark has been down with a leg injury that has questioned his availability for the 400-meter hurdles.
“Everything surrounding this team right now is a question mark,” said Reid. “How do they all feel? Can Abed take the pounding? Can Casey’s hamstring hold up? Can Anthony’s legs handle 3 rounds? Kyle was running well prior to his injury, but he went from being a contender to can we get 2 rounds of hurdles out of him.”
And then there is senior Monti Sutton, the defending NAIA triple jump champion, who has had a challenging time all season trying to regain his form of 2009. While his best marks this year would put him among the scorers at this week’s meet, he is still some 18 inches to 2 feet behind the leading contenders.
If Stevick’s hamstring muscle, which has to hold up through the 2 days and 10 events of the decathlon, and Magut’s foot, which has to take the pounding of 20,000 meters of running (the 10,000-meters and a pair of 5,000-meter races), can sustain the weekend of national competition, Azusa Pacific is looking to collect about 28 points championship points, which should be good enough for a top-ten finish.
All-American Zach Keene, who surprised the sprint competition at indoors with a pair of second-place finishes in the 60- and 200-meters, is lurking in the shadows with another possible out-of-nowhere performance. His pre-meet rankings in the 100- and 200-meters are similar to his positions heading into the indoor championship meet.
“It’s been interesting but we’ve talking more about individual achievement than team championships this time around,” said Reid. “We have a history of always putting our best foot forward at nationals, and it’s no different this year. It’s just how we measure success this year will be somewhat different.”
Ever since 1979, Azusa Pacific has finished in the top ten of the NAIA Men’s Outdoor Track & Field Championship Meet, winning the title a record 15 times and finishing in the top five 14 other years, including the past 12 in a row.
A side attraction to the track & field championship meet is Azusa Pacific’s battle with Golden State Athletic Conference rival Fresno Pacific University for the 2010 Directors’ Cup, the prized trophy awarded to the top athletic program in the NAIA for the year. Azusa Pacific is the 5-time defending champion, seeking to become the first-ever NAIA school to capture 6 straight Directors’ Cups (Simon Fraser won 5 straight as well). However, in what is shaping up to be the closest Directors’ Cup race ever, the Cougars hold just an 21-point advantage over Fresno Pacific heading into the NAIA Outdoor Track & Field Championship Meet.
Though the Sunbirds have a small contingent in Marion this week, they are expected to do well in both the men’s and women’s track & field meet. The final outcome of the Cup will most likely be determined between the Sunbird women and whether or not they can out-perform the Cougar men by 25-30 Directors’ Cup points, which are awarded by final placing in their respective track & field championship standings.
The NAIA Outdoor Track & Field Championship Meet begins Thursday (May 27) with the decathlon at 7 a.m. (PDT). The meet concludes Saturday (May 29) with the men’s 4x400-meter relay at 3:05 p.m. (PDT).
Click here for detailed information on the championship meet, including real-time results, live video-streaming, final event entries, team rosters, ticket prices and championship history.