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Cougars are NAIA Champs

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May 29, 2010
Gary Pine
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MARION, Ind. -- What would Azusa Pacific do for a single point?

Well given the fact that the Cougars lost in gut-wrenching fashion the 2008 and 2009 NAIA indoor championship by 1 point each year, they would do just about anything. So they did. They ran 26.2 miles just to get a point, and it made all the difference as Azusa Pacific won the 2010 NAIA Outdoor Track & Field Championship during Saturday’s final round of competition on the campus of Indiana Wesleyan University.

The Cougars beat Oklahoma Baptist University, 61-60, to collect their fourth outdoor women’s crown in school history, all of them coming in the past 8 years.

“It absolutely fell our way,” said an elated and relieved Cougar women’s track & field head coach Mike Barnett. “The girls did an unbelievable job. They rose to the occasion.”

Junior Emma Delira’s eighth-place finish in this morning’s marathon proved to be the eventual difference in the meet, though the Cougars didn’t clinch the title until Lauren Jimison and Jacky Kipwambok went 2-3 in the 5000-meters to tally exactly the 14 points needed to keep OBU at bay.

Delira, a first-year Cougar who returned to distance running this season after a 2-year layoff, ran the first 24 miles of the marathon side-by-side with teammate Stephanie Godfrey. However, with Indiana Wesleyan’s Kelsey Devereaux closing in, Cougar distance coach Preston Grey instructed that one of the 2 Cougars had to pull away. Godfrey signaled to Delira, who followed order over the final 2 miles, holding off Devereaux, who did catch Godfrey but was still 27 seconds behind Delira and her run of 3 hours, 22 minutes and 7 seconds.

“Steph and I earned that point together,” said Delira. “We trained together all season, and we ran 24 miles together today. I could not have done it without her, so it’s both of our point.”

Delira becomes the first Cougar since Becki Sweatman in2001 to score in the marathon.

“I didn’t know that I’d be the difference,” said Delira, “but before the race Steph and I said we had to do whatever we could to get a point. We just wanted to score.”

Godfrey finished tenth at 3:23.29.

Mandy Ross set up the dramatic team finish with a sixth-place showing in the 200 meters (24.33) to the give Azusa Pacific another 3 points and move their magic number to 14 points to clinch the national championship with just 1 event left for the Cougars.

With 3 Cougars in the 5000 meters, Barnett was hopeful that at least 2 of them could finish in the top 3 to collect the necessary 14 to win the title. Though it got dicey over the 12-lap race, Jimison and Kipwambok did just that – garnering 14 points by finishing second and third, respectively.

“I died a million deaths in that race,” said Grey.

Heading into the final lap, Jimison appeared to have second place wrapped up, but Kipwambok was in a battle to keep 2 runners off her right shoulder. With 300 meters remaining, both foes began to fall back as Kipwambok kept a strong, steady pace to hold on to third place and secure the team national championship.

Jimison finished in a time of 17:26.66, while Kipwambok checked in at 17:36.66.

“We talked before the race about what had to be done,” said Barnett, “and Jacky was aware of what was going on. She is a veteran of this level of competition, and she is very competitive. She made sure she’d keep her spot and we’d win the title.”

Had Kipwambok fallen behind either runner, the meet would have ended in a 60-all tie to produce the first co-championship in the 31-year history of the NAIA women’s championship meet.

“This feeling is amazing,” said Godfrey, a senior who was present and remembers the pain all too well when Azusa Pacific lost the 2008 and 2009 NAIA titles by a point on the last event fo the meet. “We did this together as a team, hand-in-hand. It feels good to be on this side of it for once.”

Interestingly, Azusa Pacific won the national championship without the benefit one individual event winner. Jimison tallied a team-high 18 of the Cougars’ 61 points with a pair of second-place finishes, first in Thursday’s 10,000 and then with today’s 5000. Kipwambok tacked on another 14 with her results in those same 2 races.

With her best-ever showing at an NAIA outdoor meet, Ross produced 9 points with her third-place in Friday’s 100-meters and in today’s sxith in the 200.

“I could not be more proud of this group of young ladies,” said Barnett. “They finished fourth at indoors and came right back the next week with a focus on the outdoor championships, working hard and doing all the little things necessary to be at their best individually and as a team.”

The Azusa Pacific men finished 26th with 12.83 points. Senior Jordan Savidge closed out a fine Cougar career with yet another All-American performance in the pole vault, finishing in a tie for fifth with a clearance of 15’ 11”. Junior Jerry Sommerville added a third of a point with a 3-way tie for eighth in the high jump after going 6’ 7”.

The national championship is Azusa Pacific’s 35th NAIA crown, the third highest tally in association history.

With the women’s and men’s performances at the NAIA track championships, Azusa Pacific concludes the 2009-10 intercollegiate athletics season, and for the first time in 6 years, the Cougars do not know whether or not they will win the Directors’ Cup, which is annually awarded to the top athletic program in the nation. This year’s Cup race has shaped up to be the tightest in history and the final score will not be released until June 23 at the NACDA Convention. Azusa Pacific, Simon Fraser University (B.C.), and Fresno Pacific University (Calif.) are all in contention to win the 2009-10 Directors’ Cup.

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