MARION, Ind. -- As a thousand elite collegiate track & field athletes converge on Marion, Ind., this weekend so too do 2 days of predicted severe thunderstorms that have the potential to wreak havoc on the schedule and, more importantly, the results of the NAIA Outdoor Track & Field Championship Meet at Indiana Wesleyan University which is scheduled for Thursday-Saturday (May 26-28).
While Azusa Pacific track & field head coaches Kevin Reid and Mike Barnett strategize and plot potential point tallies and finishes for the 3-day meet, they must now factor in extreme weather conditions and what affect they’ll have on a Cougar contingent that includes 14 women and 10 men.
The Cougar women are the reigning NAIA outdoor national champion, pulling off a mild upset last year in Marion by clipping pre-meet favorite Oklahoma Baptist University by a single point to collect the program’s third outdoor crown in the past 8 years. Last year, however, the weather was near perfect; humid at times but nonetheless a nonfactor in the final outcome.
This year, however, the weather may prove to be the biggest foe for each and every team. High winds, thunder, and heavy rain are on tap, and lengthy delays in the meet schedule are likely. Downpours and lightening will certainly stop the meet, and track flooding will slow the return to action, thus presenting adjusted and crammed schedules that put added stress on athlete bodies that are dependent upon 24-hour rest in a championship meet like the NAIA.
As final rosters for this weekend’s meet were confirmed, Oklahoma Baptist again emerged as the pre-meet favorite, battling Azusa Pacific and Concordia University (Ore.) for the title. The Bison are on pace for 80-point tally, while the Cougars should settle in the mid-70s, and Concordia is expected to register approximately 70 points.
However, when it comes to event strengths both Azusa Pacific and Concordia are as rain-proof as possible, and OBU may be the contender most adversely influenced by the inclement weather. The Bison, who won the NAIA indoor crown back in March, are a sprint-laden squad, hoping to score as much as 35 points between the 100- and 200-meters along with the 4x100- and 4x400-meter relays.
Azusa Pacific, on the other hand, features a distance-running unit that is expected to tally the majority of its points in the 1500-, 5000- and 10,000-meters. While wet weather isn’t ideal for the distances, it certainly doesn’t pose as significant of a risk as it would in the sprints.
Concordia is arguably the strongest “throws” team in the field, and the Cavaliers, who hail from Portland, Ore., certainly are akin to wet weather, and high winds could enhance their throws in the javelin and discus.
What is possible and even what is expected is not likely to be at this year’s NAIA championship meet. As the rain clouds open, so too does the door to any number of potential national championship teams, including Azusa Pacific.
Heading the list of Cougar standouts this weekend is junior Lauren Jimison, an NAIA indoor champion in the 5000-meters and last year’s runner-up in the outdoor 10,000. The 5-time All-American enters this weekend’s competition with the NAIA’s top times this year in both the 5000 (16:38.91) and 10,000 (34:16.73). She’ll the first Cougar to potentially tally points when she takes to the track for the 10,000 final Thursday evening.
NAIA indoor champion Victoria Martinez is headed into her final competition as a Cougar as the pre-meet favorite in the 1500 (4:28.64), and she teams with fellow All-American Poppy Lawman to comprise half of the NAIA’s top-rated 4x800-meter relay. A perfect meet for Azusa Pacific would result in 45 points coming out of the Jimison-Martinez-Lawman trio.
Azusa Pacific has 4 entrants in the 16-athlete pentathlon field, and all of them have scores that rate among the top 9. Sophomore All-American Breanna Leslie is 1 of just 2 athletes to score over 5,000 points this season. Freshman Megan VanWinkle tallied 4,816 points in her first and only pentathlon ever, the fourth best score in the NAIA this season. In her final act with Azusa Pacific, 10-time All-American Tiffeny Parker eclipsed the 5,000-point plateau last year. Junior Emily Nash is a veteran of NAIA competition and with her career-best of 4,516 she’ll be in the hunt to score for the Cougars.
Others who could figure prominently for Azusa Pacific include senior sprinter Mandy Ross, who will be running in both the 100- and 200-meters, and sophomore thrower Jordan Robusto, who will press for points in the hammer throw.
While the women’s team competition features a powerful trio of 3 schools, the men’s chase for the national championship is less dynamic but certainly more wide open. Any 1 of 5 schools could win the crown, and if breaks fall just right, perhaps Azusa Pacific could sneak onto the podium with a Top 4 finish come closing ceremonies on Saturday, which by the way, is forecasted to have postcard-like weather.
On the men’s pre-meet chart, 6 Cougars are expected to score points in 7 different events. An extra effort from a couple possible scorers could get Azusa Pacific into the mid-30s, and pending how the weather plays out, the Cougars may find themselves with some sort of hardware to bring home.
Junior Abednego Magut, a 4-time All-American, is coming to his third outdoor championship meet, but his first at full strength. He’ll press for high finishes in both the 5,000 and the 10,000, after finishing 19th last year in the 10K before pulling out of the 5000 with a foot injury. Magut could prove to be a difference-maker in the Cougars’ quest to climb ladder. Though he enters the meet with the sixth best times in both events, he could be a Top 3 finisher.
Though just a freshman, fellow distance runner Wade Meddles has the fourth-best time in the 1500-meters entering the meet.
Another freshman, David Musson is Azusa Pacific’s best chance at an NAIA javelin title in more than 10 years. He has thrown over 210’ on several occasions this season and has the third-best mark in the NAIA this season.
Senior Jeff Altizer is also entered in the javelin after heaving the spear a personal-record 190’ earlier this month, but the veteran is likely to make more of a presence in the decathlon, an event in which he enters with a personal-best score of 6,653, fourth-best in the NAIA this year.
All-American junior Zach Keene is a wildcard in the Cougar scheme. If he can advance to the finals of the 100- and 200-meters, his points will be a bonus production in Azusa Pacific’s push to finish in the Top 4 of the meet.
The 3-day meet begins Thursday at 8 a.m. (PDT) with the decathlon and heptathlon and concludes Saturday evening with the running of the men’s and women’s 4x400-meter relays.