MARION, Ind. -- Azusa Pacific’s arrival to Marion, Indiana, for this weekend’s National Christian College Athletic Association Indoor Track & Field National Championships was delayed, rescheduled, and rerouted, but not even a late arrival was able to keep the Cougars from an outstanding opening day of the two-day championship meet.
Scheduled to arrive Thursday afternoon in Indianapolis, Azusa Pacific’s travel day started with notification that the flight it had booked to Indianapolis was cancelled. Instead of taking the entire travel party to Indianapolis for a short two-hour drive to Marion, the Cougars were forced to split up into three groups on separate flights to Chicago. Once the group was reassembled in the Windy City, a drive of four hours in length finally delivered the team to its hotel in Marion at 3 a.m. Friday morning, just 16 hours prior to the first scheduled event of the meet. To top it all off, the Cougars woke up Friday to snow flurries and freezing temperatures outside.
Yet instead of allowing the circumstances to control its performance, Azusa Pacific raced out to a commanding lead in the women’s team standings, with Breanna Leslie leading the way by shattering her own school-record in the pentathlon with a career-best 4,109 points. Her 237-point improvement not only gave her back-to-back pentathlon national championships, it also gave her the seventh-best pentathlon score by any U.S. athlete this year.
“We have a championship pedigree, and I think that matters in a meet like this,” women’s head coach Preston Grey said. “It starts with Breanna, because she sets the tone for this team and she’s our best athlete and emotional leader. She really set the bar high for everybody today.”
Leslie and Megan VanWinkle swept the top two spots in the pentathlon, with VanWinkle adding a 3,674-point performance to wrap up the opening day by adding 18 team points to the Cougars’ opening-day lead. VanWinkle ran a season-best 9.36 seconds in the 60-meter hurdles and jumped 19-feet, 3.25-inches in the pentathlon long jump, and she netted another second-place finish in the open long jump with a leap of 19-feet, 3.5-inches.
“Breanna has been our leader for awhile, and she stepped up with a big day today,” Grey said. “We had a lot of great performances in the different event groups, so it was definitely a team effort today. We took a big step in the right direction.”
Freshman Kim Sanchez won the pole vault, clearing a career-best 11-feet, 5.25-inches to give Azusa Pacific its first individual national champion of the year several hours before Leslie wrapped up her pentathlon win.
Other top performances included Cheri Smith taking second place in the weight throw (53-feet, 3.75-inches) and Danica Dobosy taking fifth place with a mark of 47-feet, 6.5-inches. In the 5,000 meters, Kristie Sikma and Sarah Higgens took second and third place, respectively, both finishing under 18 minutes.
Three athletes qualified for Saturday’s finals in Friday prelim events, including Anita Fung in the 60-meter dash as well as Leslie and Jordan Chesley in the 60-meter hurdles. In addition, the Cougars took fifth place in the distance medley relay and finished third in the 4x200 meter relay.
“The goal is to be there for the win, to be in contention to win the meet,” Grey said. “That’s usually our goal at championship meets, because that’s the tradition and the history we have. We want to continue that, and I think we made good strides with it.”
The Cougars also inserted themselves into the championship equation on the men’s side, sitting just six points behind men’s team leader Oklahoma Christian while pre-meet favorite Olivet Nazarene finished Day One in third place with 25 points. Runner-up finishes in entertaining 4x200 and distance medley relays accounted for the bulk of Azusa Pacific’s scoring, accounting for 16 of the team’s 23 points.
“Everyone’s tired and a little bit sick from the crazy travel day we had on Thursday, but they’ve handled it really well,” men’s head coach Kevin Reid said. “The goal is the process of showing up and competing. Take Talaiasi Taueli today as an example – he didn’t make the final of the weight throw today, but he threw great and threw for a PR. Brad Beckwith was the same way in that event. It’s always been about coming to nationals and setting PRs, and after that, the results take care of themselves.”
David Schulte and Sameer Sedam both hit personal-bests in the long jump, placing seventh and eighth to add three points to the Cougars’ total, and both Beckwith and Taueli threw for personal-bests in the weight throw. Beckwith’s toss of 53-feet, 7-inches, was good for fifth place overall, which accounted for four points towards the team scoring tally.
“We need to look a little deeper at what we expected people to do and start playing that plus-and-minus to try to keep a running total of where we’re at,” Reid said. “For being process-oriented, if we have a day tomorrow like we did today, win or lose, I think we’ll walk away pretty pleased.”
In prelim races, Remontay McClain clocked a 6.84 to set up an exciting 60-meter final with Shorter University’s Kirk Wilson, who has run in every sprint (60-, 100-, and 200-meter) championship final McClain has appeared in the past two seasons. They’ll meet head-to-head on Saturday, first in the 60-meter final before they run in the same heat of the 200-meter dash.
McClain finished ahead of Wilson in the 60-meters at last year’s NAIA Indoor National Championships, although Wilson edged McClain in the 200-meters of that same meet. They met again at the NAIA Outdoor Championships last spring, and McClain responded by winning individual national titles over Wilson in both the 100-meter and 200-meter events. However, Wilson anchored a 4x100 meter relay that set the NAIA record, although McClain was closing fast coming down the stretch for the Cougars’ runner-up relay team, which set a school-record in the process.
Slater Ezell and Jake Hare both advanced to Saturday’s 60-meter hurdles final, although Tomek Czerwinski just missed the cut for the final by finishing ninth overall with a time of 8.68. Ezell’s time of 8.41 seconds was second-fastest in the prelims, while Hare registered 8.44 seconds for a fifth-place prelims performance.
Czerwinski also leads the heptathlon, recording top-five finishes in each of the first four events to post a Day One score of 2,725 points. He recorded season-bests in the long jump and shot put to take a 20-point lead over Cedarville’s James Blackwell through four of the competition’s seven events. Sophomore Justin Young scored 2,631 points, good for fourth-place in the heptathlon standings following the opening day, and sophomore Matt Nashhas 2,295 points in ninth place.
NCCAA Note: The top eight times or performances in each event score points in the team standings, with 10 points awarded for first place, eight points for second, and six points on down by increments of one for the third through eighth-place. The top three performances in each event earn NCCAA All-American recognition.