GENEVA, Ohio -- Azusa Pacific wasted no time announcing its intentions to bring home an NAIA national championship, opening the 32nd Annual NAIA Women's Indoor Track & Field National Championships with a 21-point explosion from its trio of pentathletes, and the Cougars maintained their lead with another 16 points Friday from three more All-American performances in field event finals.
“I wouldn’t call our performance so far beyond expectations, because we’ve done everything we came here to do,” Cougar women’s head coach Mike Barnett said. “After leading it after each of the first two nights, we definitely realize we have an opportunity ahead of us, too. Even though you want to be in the lead, it’s not that big of a deal at this point because we’ll probably trade hands several times tomorrow.”
In addition to the events that have been scored so far, the Cougars have set up their title pursuit by taking a 37-28 lead into the final day of competition with qualifiers in eight of the 15 scheduled events. Many of those are potential All-Americans and national-title contenders, highlighted by pentathlon national champion Breanna Leslie as well as a strong representation in several distance events.
Leslie claimed the pentathlon title with 3,861 points, just three points off the school-record mark she set three weeks prior in an indoor qualifier meet. She was joined by fellow All-Americans Megan Vanwinkle and Emily Nash, who finished third and fourth, respectively, to give Azusa Pacific 21 points on the first day of the three-day championship meet.
On Friday, Vanwinkle added another five points to the Cougars’ tally with a fourth-place finish in the long jump, leaping 18-feet, 11.75-inches on her third jump to garner another All-American honor. Vanwinkle, who scored a PR of 3,651 points to place third in the pentathlon Thursday, had jumped 19-feet, 3.25-inches in the pentathlon long jump, which would have won the individual event by a half-inch margin.
In Friday’s weight throw event, Kat Luna and Cheri Smith gathered another 11 points for the team by placing third and fourth, respectively, with tosses of 56-feet, 3-inches. Smith PR’d in three consecutive successful attempts, and Luna saved her best throws for her final two attempts of the competition.
“Cheri had one PR after another, and Kat responded,” Barnett said. “They were feeding off each other, both improving on their last throw and jumped ahead in the end. They were training well, and I was excited to see them put it all together here.”
With a pentathlon national crown already under her belt, Leslie is putting together the type of championship meet that might put her under consideration for the meet’s Most Outstanding Performer. On Friday, Leslie posted the best times in both the prelims and the semifinals of the 60-meter hurdles, registering 8.59 in the prelims and 8.54 in the semis, just a day after turning in an 8.56 in the pentathlon’s 60-meter hurdles. No other competitor has run a sub-8.6 in the meet so far, and Leslie has done so three times. She is also set to compete in the high jump competition, which wraps up the field events portion of the championship meet.
“Breanna looks unstoppable,” Barnett said. “She’s been smooth over the hurdles and is looking very comfortable.”
Yet perhaps the greatest scoring potential for Azusa Pacific on the final day rests in the distance events. All four of the Cougars’ qualifiers in the 5,000 meters finished in the top five of Thursday’s qualifying race, so that group will all be in contention for All-America honors and the individual national title, which should provide a hefty boost to the team scoring total when that event takes place late in the competition Saturday.
Diandra Carstensen ran the fourth-fastest 1,000 meters in Friday’s semifinals, so she’ll be in the mix to score in the middle of Saturday’s action, which kicks off on the track with the mile, which features senior Victoria Martinez in the final meet of her career. Martinez owns the fastest mile qualifying time among the 12 competitors, and she’ll continue her day less than two hours later with the 3,000 meters, another event in which she posted the fastest qualifying time.
The Cougars will get their final opportunity for a scoring push in the second-to-last event of the meet, the distance medley relay. In Thursday’s qualifying, Azusa Pacific had the fastest DMR by over 10 seconds, posting an 11:54.91, which rates as the third-fastest DMR in school history.
“When we start performing well, it becomes a contagious thing for a team, especially for us in this meet,” Barnett said. “When individuals succeed and their teammates see them perform, that helps the others believe that they’re ready. When we’re in a winning frenzy like this, we usually do well. We have so many things going, and that’s such an advantage to run together like that. We come here to compete well and hopefully be at the top of the podium when all is said and done.”
For the Azusa Pacific men, Saturday should be an opportunity for the Cougars to get on the scoreboard by putting a lot of points up in a hurry. Freshman sprinter Remontay McClain clocked back-to-back 6.67-second performances in the 60 meter dash, and he was the fastest in prelims and just a hundredth of a second off the pace in the semifinals. He also won his prelim heat in the 200 meter dash with a time of 21.21, turning in the fourth-fastest time to qualify for the final in that event, as well.
“It’s been up and down for us,” Cougar men’s track and field head coach Kevin Reid said. “Cedrique and Remontay are running well, and we can realistically win a few national titles, which would be a great Saturday. We’ve been a little bit off, and although some of the competitors actually improved a little bit, we’ve just fallen a little bit short.
Zach Keene competed in the 60-meter and 200-meter qualifying heats, although he was not in top form after coming down with the flu just prior to the start of the meet this week. Keene finished 14th in 200-meter qualifying, and he advanced to the semifinals of the 60-meters with a prelim time of 6.84. However, his 6.82 time in the semifinals was a hundredth of a second away from qualifying him for Saturday’s final in the event.
“As good as Remontay is, we still needed Zach in those events,” Reid said. “That’s a tough loss to take the night before, and he just ran out of gas today.”
In the 60-meter hurdles, Cedrique Smith and Jacob Hare moved on from trials into the semifinals. While Smith improved from an 8.10 prelim time to 8.00 seconds for the fastest time in the semifinals, Hare dropped from third-best in prelims (8.16) to tenth in the semifinals (8.22), just two-hundredths of a second away from qualifying for Saturday’s finals alongside Smith. Javen Correia missed out on a spot in the semifinals by an even smaller margin, finishing a thousandth of a second out of the last semifinal spot with his time of 8.34.
“Jake ran a PR in the prelims, and Javen ran well in his first national meet,” Reid said. “We’re just a little bit nervous right now, and a few misses like what we’ve had all the way around add up. I think we have a chance to leave with 40-plus points, and that’s a good meet for us. We just need a good solid effort all the way around.”
Smith and Michael Curry also competed in the long jump, with Curry’s best jump of 22-feet, 9-inches putting him in ninth. Smith finished 12th with a mark of 21-feet, 10.75-inches on his opening attempt of the competition.
In addition to Smith in the 60-meter hurdles and McClain running in the 60-meter and 200-meter finals, the Cougars have two others competing Saturday, beginning with Genesis Hampton’s participation in the triple jump. The other finalist is Abednego Magut in the 5,000 meters, which he ran in 14:48.33 in Thursday’s qualifying race.
Wade Meddles placed 15th in the mile with a time of 4:21.81, and Kyle Clark and Riley McKee participated in qualifying for the 600-meters. Clark took 18th with a time of 1:22.30, and McKee was 22nd, finishing in 1:23.96. Matt Rau completed the two-day heptathlon with a 13th-place finish, scoring 4,628 points.
VIDEO (BREANNA LESLIE RUNS FASTEST TIME IN 60-METER HURDLES QUALIFYING)