MARION, Ind. -- A year ago, Mother Nature made her presence felt at the NAIA Outdoor Track & Field National Championships with rain and thunderstorms that disrupted the schedule of the meet and its thousand-plus competitors.
This year, the forecasted conditions have drastically improved, with temperatures predicted to reach into the 90s Friday and Saturday under clear and sunny skies at Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Indiana. The Azusa Pacific contingent of 15 men and 14 women are expected to be in the mix within the top-five and potentially enter national-title consideration with a strong weekend of performances.
Based on the qualifying marks recorded during outdoor season, the men’s crown will be tightly contested between meet favorites Wayland Baptist (Texas) and Shorter (Ga.), while sprints-heavy Oklahoma Baptist is the obvious front-runner for the women’s title.
The Bison could conceivably tally over 100 points to literally run away with its first-ever crown after posting three consecutive runner-up finishes. However, 2012 NAIA indoor national champion Azusa Pacific and defending NAIA outdoor champion Concordia (Ore.) are poised to score in the 60s and could put some early pressure on Oklahoma Baptist. Other than the pole vault, the Bison will not be able to start scoring points until midway through Friday’s track events.
“It was exciting to win indoors, and it’s tough to duplicate that, but we did come here to try to win another title,” Cougar women’s head coach Mike Barnett said. “I think our team is mentally and physically in a better place than they were last year at this time. They seem ready, anxious, eager, and confident. Realistically, Oklahoma Baptist looks incredibly good on paper and they have the same team from indoors, while we’re minus quite a few points (from that indoor meet). But we proved in 2010, when OBU looked unstoppable, that if we just keep doing what we do you never know what could happen, and I think the girls know that.”
The Cougars are positioned to score a significant chunk of points in the first two days of competition. Senior Lauren Jimison is a four-time NAIA individual champion who recorded the top qualifying times in both the 5,000- and 10,000-meter races for the second consecutive season. Junior Breanna Leslie leads a trio of heptathletes who recorded three of the NAIA’s top seven marks in the two-day event, and she also owns the NAIA’s third-fastest time this year in the 100-meter hurdles.
Sophomore Megan VanWinkle has the second-highest NAIA heptathlon total this year, and she will also compete for All-America honors in Thursday’s long jump competition. Rounding out the trio is senior Emily Nash, who should also make a push for an All-America performance. Leslie, VanWinkle, and Nash are also on the 4x400 relay team, which includes Anita Fung and could be a source of valuable points in the final event of the championship meet on Saturday.
“The 4x400 is a bonus, because the trials are Friday night after almost everything’s over for our team,” Barnett said. “Nobody on that relay has anything to do on Saturday, so as exhausted as they are, the ultimate bonus is Friday night. If they get through to the finals, that would be pretty exciting. If you put a baton in anyone’s hands, it doesn’t matter how tired you are, because there’s just a gear in there that you just look to.”
Other All-American hopefuls include Sarah Higgens in the steeplechase, Kathleen Luna in the shot put, and Jordan Robusto, who headlines a trio of hammer throwers that includes Luna and Cheri Smith. Kristie Sikma joins Jimison in the 5,000 and 10,000 with top-eight qualifying times, and Melissa Telon was also in the top-10 in qualifying for the 5,000.
“As we’ve told the team, the reason we win nationals isn’t because we have people who do extraordinary things,” Barnett said. “We might have one surprise where we wonder where that came from, but we’re steady. We compete steady all year long, so when we come into a meet with consistency, we just want to do what we did to get here. Ultimately, you get onto the podium by being consistent, and that’s what we’ve done best.”
Ferin Barry will be in the hunt for points in the pole vault, and the Cougar roster is rounded out by Megan Knippenberg, who runs the marathon Saturday morning, and Jordan Chesley, who is entered in the 100-meter hurdles.
The men’s meet is projected to be a tight two-team race at the top between defending outdoor champion Shorter and the 2010 champs Wayland Baptist. Both are projected to score in the mid-90s, although no men’s champion since 2006 has surpassed 80 points en route to the national title. The Cougars project to score somewhere around 50 points, as do last year’s runner-up Doane (Neb.) and Concordia (Ore.).
“Wayland Baptist and Shorter have a lot of depth, but I think we can put up some numbers that could be hard to deal with,” Cougar men’s head coach Kevin Reid said. “If all we do is just what we should do, I think we should be in the top five. We don’t have quite the depth that we’ve had in the past, but we have the chance to walk out of here with several national champions.”
Azusa Pacific’s hopes for a podium finish rest on the shoulders of several contenders for individual national titles. Senior Casey Stevick owns the NAIA’s top decathlon score with 7,227 points, and he will be the first Cougar athlete in action when his two-day competition kicks off Thursday morning. Junior David Musson registered the NAIA’s best javelin throw (214-feet, 11-inches) this season and is expected to contend for the national title in his event. Meanwhile, junior hurdler Cedrique Smith has the fastest 110-meter hurdles time by a wide margin, and he will also run the 400-meter hurdles and potentially both of the Cougar relay teams (4x100 and 4x400).
True freshman Remontay McClain is among the contenders in the 100- and 200-meters, sitting in third on the qualifying list in both events behind Doane’s Brijesh Lawrence and Wayland Baptist’s Gregory Turner. Meanwhile, senior Abednego Magut has the sixth-fastest qualifying time among competitors in the 5,000 meters.
Another interesting event for Azusa Pacific is the 400-meter hurdles, which includes Smith and three other Cougars. Kyle Clark is the fastest of the 400 hurdle qualifiers from Azusa Pacific, ranking third in the NAIA with his qualifying time of 52.69, and he and Smith will be joined in the event by Slater Ezell and Tanner Henry. Ezell ranks ninth among qualifiers in the 400 hurdles, and the true freshman Henry has steadily improved in the event throughout the season.
“We have four guys in the 400 hurdles, and without any huge clear-cut favorite in that race, that could be a huge turning point for us,” Reid said. “We have a lot of really good points out there, and if we can take advantage of those opportunities, we can really put the pressure on people.”
Sophomore Brad Beckwith is an All-America hopeful in the discus, recording the 11th-best mark in the meet with his qualifying throw of 164-feet, 9-inches at the Titan Twilight meet at Cal State Fullerton. Senior Zachary Keene also sits just outside the top-ten in qualifying for the 100 meters, tallying his qualifier at the Cal State LA Chance meet less than two weeks ago. Javen Correia could push for a spot in the finals of the 110-meter hurdles, and he is also listed with the Cougars’ 4x100 relay.
Other qualifiers on Azusa Pacific’s relay teams are Sameer Sedam, who is listed along with Keene, Smith, McClain, and Correia as 4x100 meter relay qualifiers, and 4x400 meter qualifiers Riley McKee, David Shulte, and Matt Rau are joined by Ezell, Smith, and Clark to round out the Cougars’ 15-athlete contingent.
The action kicks off at 10 a.m. (Eastern time) Thursday with the men’s decathlon 100 meters and the women’s hammer finals. The opening day of the three-day meet features five women’s finals (10,000 meters plus the hammer throw, javelin, pole vault, and long jump) and three men’s finals (hammer, javelin, and 10,000 meters).