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Cougars Set for NAIA Track Meet

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March 1, 2011
Gary Pine

March 3-5, 2010 – GaREAT Sports Complex -- Geneva, Ohio

Meet Schedule
Men’s Championshlp Meet Team Rosters
Women’s Championship Meet Team Rosters

AZUSA, Calif. -- Will a change of venue slow the Azusa Pacific men’s track & field team? On the other hand, will the new site leave behind the ghosts of the past for the Azusa Pacific women?

These questions and more will be answered at the 46th Annual NAIA Indoor Track & Field Championship Meet which begins Thursday (March 3) and runs through Saturday (March 5) at the GaREAT Sports Complex in Geneva, Ohio.

For the first time in a decade, the NAIA meet is not being staged in Johnson City, Tenn., but instead at the GaREAT Sports Complex, a 175-acre multi-facility campus just east of Cleveland. The 4-time defending national champion Cougar men are optimistic that a change in scenery won’t necessitate a chance in results. Yet the Cougar women, who endured painful second-place finishes by just one point in both 2008 and again in 2009, hope that the past is just that – the past.

Seventeen women and 13 men are in Geneva this week representing Azusa Pacific in the NAIA championship meet.

No team has more championship meet participants than the Cougar women, who will be counting on senior sprinter Mandy Ross along with a strong showing in the distance races to literally make a run at its first indoor team crown since 2004. They have the potential to score in 11 of 21 events.

An 8-time All-American, Ross is expected to advance to the finals of the 200- and 400-meter dashes where she has entered times of 25.12 and 57.61, respectively, both of which rank among the top 6 efforts in the NAIA this year. In additional, she’ll anchor the Cougars’ meet-closing 4x400-meter relay.

“I made sure we weren’t going to be on the sidelines watching a possible championship slip through our hands this year,” said Azusa Pacific Women’s Head Coach Mike Barnett, referring to the 2008 and 2009 meets when the Cougars took the lead into the final event– the 4x400 -- only to watch as Wayland Baptist University snag the national crown from an idle set of Cougars with a high finish in the 4x400.

All-Americans Lauren Jimison (5000 meters), Victoria Martinez (mile) and Poppy Lawman (1000 meters) are gunning for individual victories in their strongest events, a potential 30-point swing that could propel Azusa Pacific to the forefront heading into the Saturday’s meet-ending relays. Jimison is the defending NAIA champ in the 5000 but she has been slowed in recent weeks by an illness that has limited her training after posting an NAIA-leading time of 17:17.29 earlier in the season.

Sophomore Breanna Leslie, a do-everything All-American who jettisoned herself onto the NAIA scene during her 2010 rookie campaign, will press for NAIA titles in both the pentathlon, in which she has the third highest mark in school history at 3,539 points, and the 60-meter hurdles, in which she owns the school record at 8.67.

Conservatively, Azusa Pacific is looking to score at least 55 points which is likely to put the Cougars are among the top 4 finishers. Defending NAIA champion Oklahoma Baptist University, which also has 17 entrants in the women’s championship meet, could score in the 80s if all goes well for the Bison. Therefore, the Cougars will have to be at their best in Geneva and may need help along the way if they are the gather their third NAIA indoor crown in the program’s 31-year history.

“I like our chances,” said Barnett. “I think we’ll compete well and show well in Geneva. We have a strong well-rounded team that can score in the sprints, hurdles, distances, throws and relays. But the bar is high for a team title, and we’re going to have to scratch for every point we can get.”

The Cougars men, meanwhile, are the focal point of every foe. Not only have the Cougars won 4 straight men’s indoor championship titles, but they’ve taken 6 of the past 8 crowns dating back to 2003. They’ve been a fixture atop the podium at the conclusion of an NAIA championship meet, and some wonder if a new meet site will also usher in a new men’s champion.

Senior Casey Stevick, a 4-time NAIA All-American, heads a parade of 13 Cougar men in Geneva. The Washington native is pressing to repeat as the national champion in the heptathlon, winning it last year with 5,111 points. He enters this week’s meet with a season-best score of 4,971, fourth best among all competitors. Yet, he has been very sharp the past few meets, looking strong in the high hurdles and the shot put.

Last year’s NAIA heptathlon runner-up, senior Jeff Altizer, who was expected to push for a top 3 finish, finds himself instead nursing bruises and contusions he suffered when he was struck by a car while bicycling 2 weeks ago. Though he is cleared to compete this week, Altizer missed 10 days of training and is not back to 100-percent strength.

Fifth-year seniors Jordan Savidge and Montrail Brooks are competing in their final meet with Azusa Pacific, and they are hoping to play key roles in the Cougars securing yet another championships.

An All-American pole vaulter by trade, Savidge picked up the heptathlon 2 months ago, relying on his natural speed to aid him in the sprints, hurdles and jumps. He enters the championship meet with the eighth best score in the NAIA this year at 4,834 points. He is also expected to perform well in the open pole vault, perhaps challenging for the individual title.

Brooks heads to Ohio as one of the favorites to win the 600-meters. The 2-time All-American has a season-best time of 1:19.99, the second-fastest performance in the NAIA this year.

All-American junior Zach Keene, last year’s surprise performer at the NAIA with a pair of second-place finishes in the 60- and 200-meters, is hoping to catch lightening in bottle once again. He enters the NAIA championships with the 14th best 60 time (6.92) and the sixth best 200 mark (22.08). A repeat effort of a year ago by Keene could boost the Cougars back to the top of the podium again.

Cross country Abednego Magut and Wade Meddles could be difference makers in the 3000-meters and mile, respectively. However, the 2 are running in highly competitive events where they could finish anywhere from first to tenth and out of the scoring.

If the Cougars stay on track, they’re looking to score around 40 points. They won last year’s meet with 71. They’ll need help and some extraordinary performances to run their string to 5 straight championships. Nonetheless, they are hopeful to bring home a trophy representative of a top 4 showing.

“This is going to be a challenge for us this year,” said Azusa Pacific Men’s Track & Field Head Coach Kevin Reid. “We don’t quite have the firepower we’ve had in past years, and it doesn’t help that Altizer is not at full strength. Yet, there are some events -- the distances and sprints --where I think we could surprise some people and if so then make a run at the national championship.”

The NAIA Indoor Championship Meet begins Thursday with the 60-meter hurdles of the women’s pentathlon at 1 p.m. (EST). It concludes Saturday with the men’s 4x400-meter relay at 4:15 p.m. (EST).