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AZUSA, Calif. -- When Azusa Pacific opens the 2013 track & field season Saturday, it begins the process of building on an unprecedented run of success at the NAIA level.
The Cougars have won 30 national titles (23 men’s and seven women’s), including 18 NAIA national championships since 2000. Azusa Pacific athletes have claimed nearly 1,300 NAIA All-American honors over the program’s history, including 273 individual national champions. In the program’s 25-year Golden State Athletic Conference membership, it has won two-thirds of every track & field conference title up for grabs, claiming 33 combined men’s and women’s GSAC championships.
The Cougars concluded their dominant run in 2012 with a women’s indoor national championship, which preceded runner-up and third-place outdoor finishes for the men’s and women’s teams, respectively, and a conference-championship sweep of the men’s and women’s GSAC titles.
The numbers are staggering, but the question that remains to be answered is exactly what impact those past accomplishments will make on the future of Azusa Pacific track & field, which now begins the multi-year transition into NCAA Division II competition. As the Cougars calibrate to the new standards and expectations that go along with the move to Division II and the Pacific West Conference, they’ll continue to compete for national titles at the National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA) championships for the next two seasons in preparation for the program’s first crack at NCAA Division II national competition beginning in the 2014-15 school year.
“We haven’t established our identity yet,” said Director of Track & Field Mike Barnett. “We are trying to wrap our minds around what the next level looks like for us. There’s confidence but there’s also uncertainty, because our goal is to get on the podium in our first year of NCAA membership in 2015. We sat down with the team in September and made sure they were aware that the bar has been raised.”
For one of the nation’s elite track & field programs, the transition offers a new challenge, and an opportunity to reset the foundation to re-formulate a comparable level of success on the NCAA Division II stage. Behind the scenes, the changes include a re-shaping of the coaching staff. Last summer, Barnett was named the director of track & field, a position of program-wide oversight, while 13-time NAIA Coach of the Year Kevin Reid continues in his role as the men’s head coach. Preston Grey, Azusa Pacific’s eighth-year cross country head coach, was tabbed to fill the women’s head coaching role.
WOMEN’S TEAM OUTLOOK
After bidding farewell to NAIA membership with a national indoor title and third-place outdoor finish, Azusa Pacific claimed the program’s first-ever NCCAA national championship this fall in women’s cross country. That group establishes an obvious strength in the distance events for the Cougars, who enter the 2013 season featuring the return of several top performers from last year’s title run. A boost from a group of newcomers will also help keep the Cougars in the mix for the NCCAA crown.
The distance team is led by NCCAA Cross Country All-Americans Kristie Sikma and Sarah Higgens, along with three other All-PacWest performers from the fall in junior Diandra Carstensen and freshmen Sarah MacIntosh and Natalie Koskela. Carstensen was last year’s NAIA 1,000 meter national champion, and while MacIntosh and Koskela add quality to an already-deep pool in the distance events.
Also leading the way are a pair of multi-event standouts, senior Breanna Leslie and junior Megan VanWinkle. Leslie won individual national titles at the NAIA indoor and outdoor meets last year, breaking the program’s all-time pentathlon record (3,864 points) in a qualifying meet, while VanWinkle finished third in both the pentathlon (indoor) and heptathlon (outdoor) a year ago.
“Those are our two best athletes on the team,” Barnett said. “Between the hurdles, high jump, long jump, and the multis, those girls are going to gobble up points. Breanna is on the level of being one of the best athletes to ever come through here, and she has the chance this year to put herself among the all-time greats. Once she gets the self-confidence and realization that she’s next-level, she will jump to another stratosphere.”
A trio of newcomers join VanWinkle, the Cougars’ long jump record holder, to provide the potential for considerable points in the jumps at the conference and national meets. Transfer Mareka Clark should be able to step in and score points right away in the triple jump and long jump, while freshman high jumper Sydney Eaton has considerable potential to help the program now and in the future at the Division II level. Another newcomer in the jumps is freshman high jumper Faith Douglas.
Leslie is a standout hurdler, and she’ll be joined in those events by junior Jordan Chesley and freshman Jordan Castro. The Cougars also feature a pair of returning sprinters in senior Anita Fung and sophomore Kat Gonzalez.
In pole vault, sophomore Casey Schade is the lone returnee among a group of four vaulters. Schade cleared a season-best 10-feet as a freshman last year, and she will contend for a spot in the field at the national meet this spring.
Senior Cheri Smith should contend for national titles in the weight throw and hammer in her final season, and she leads a relatively young quartet of throwers which includes volleyball transplant Jackie Landers in the javelin along with freshman Erica Grassl and sophomore hammer thrower Danica Dobosy.
MEN’S TEAM OUTLOOK
Azusa Pacific’s men’s track & field program built on a top-ten indoor finish to claim the outdoor runner-up in last year’s NAIA championship meets, and the 2013 Cougars are a balanced bunch that will be capable of scoring championship points in a variety of ways.
For starters, Azusa Pacific brings back sophomore sprinter Remontay McClain, whose sensational freshman campaign finished with a national-championship sweep of the 100- and 200-meters, along with a blazing anchor leg in the 4x100-meter relay that shattered the school record with the first sub-40 second time in program history.
Azusa Pacific also features national title contenders in several throwing events, including the return of 2012 NAIA javelin champion David Musson for his junior season. Fellow junior Brad Beckwith was an NAIA All-American discus thrower last year, and they’re joined by 6-foot-1, 280-pound true freshman Talaiasi Taueli, a natural thrower who has shot put national championship potential from the outset.
Junior Tomek Czerwinski, a former state junior college decathlon champion, is the newcomer to Azusa Pacific’s multi-event participants, which includes sophomore returners Matt Nash and Justin Young. Seniors Slater Ezell and Javen Correia are returning NAIA All-Americans in the hurdles, which is an area of continuing depth for the Cougars.
“We’ve got one of the best sprinters in the country in Remontay, and Tom has a chance to be one of the better multi-eventers,” Reid said. “Talaiasi will be an impact guy in the shot put and Musson in the javelin, so it’s a stereotypical team in that our strengths are spread out. I also have expectations of the freshmen in the middle distance events, so I see a lot of balance in this team.”
The freshman trio of Sam Baker, Aaron Potts, and Ryan Phillips lead a group described by cross country head coach Preston Grey as the best collection of young talent in their event at Azusa Pacific since the program claimed five consecutive 4x800 meter relay national titles. Grey also noted the depth and improvement of the Cougars’ distance group as a whole.
Other newcomers include three freshmen in the jumps, along with a sprinter and jumper in junior Trenten Merrill, who is a U.S. national-class athlete in the Paralympics classification.