JOLIET, Ill. -- Azusa Pacific’s early message at the National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA) Outdoor Track & Field National Championships was unmistakably clear.
These Cougars are here for a men’s and women’s national-title sweep, which would be the program’s first since claiming back-to-back men’s and women’s indoor national titles in 2003 and 2004 and would be the first time ever Azusa Pacific would have produced such a sweep at an outdoor national championship meet.
Through eight women’s and eight men’s events, Azusa Pacific has scored 69 points in the women’s team standings and 62 points in men’s events. The second-highest scoring total in the women’s standings was 25 points from Shorter (Ga.) and Bethel (Ind.), while the men’s second-place team is Cedarville with 42 points.
Starting with Megan VanWinkle’s meet-record 5,121-point heptathlon victory, Azusa Pacific produced six more event champions in the remaining 15 men’s and women’s event finals on Friday, with six more Cougars finishing either second or third in their respective events. Joining VanWinkle atop the podium as NCCAA event champions were Cheri Smith (hammer), Kristie Sikma (10,000 meters), Mareka Clark (triple jump), along with the Cougars’ 4x800 meter relay team consisting of Iliana Velazquez, Megan Crowley, Reika Kijima, and Diandra Carstensen.
“I was very pleased that in cold, wet, and windy conditions we rarely see, everybody did exactly what they were supposed to do,” said Azusa Pacific women’s track & field head coach Preston Grey. “They got out there and acted like it was a normal Southern California day. I would love to see the team extend (into tomorrow) the same thing we’ve done today. If everybody does their job, and they compete like they’ve been competing, the points will take care of themselves.”
VanWinkle’s winning margin in the heptathlon was a whopping 723 points over runner-up Lindsay Honea, who won the Pacific West Conference heptathlon for Point Loma Nazarene University last week ago at the conference championship meet in San Diego. Her feat was even more impressive considering the driving downpour of rain and wind which she registered solid opening marks in both the long jump and javelin throw, which allowed VanWinkle to forego her remaining attempts to minimize the impacts of the elements. Despite taking just one attempt, VanWinkle still posted the best marks of both events, and she also ran the fastest 800-meters (2:26.78) to pick up the victory going away.
Smith’s best throw of 158-feet, 1-inch came in the preliminary round of the hammer throw, and it held up to beat the next-best finals throw by a margin of four-and-a-half feet. Sikma’s 10,000-meter time of 36:35.46 was more than 15 seconds faster than her nearest challenger, California Baptist University’s Jennifer Mallen, and Clark came from behind in the triple jump finals for her victory over Shorter University’s Tamala Daley. Clark’s winning jump of 41-feet, 3-inches was a personal-best, and it beat Daley’s best finals jump by 4.5 inches.
“Azusa Pacific has a great track & field tradition because the seniors pass it down to the next group to try to keep it going from one generation to the next,” Grey said. “They know that they’re all part of that legacy, and this group has been faced with a season unlike anything in school history. We’ve told them from day one that the bar was being raised, and it was their job to be the bridge that carries the legacy on from our past in the NAIA into our future in Division II. I think it’s hard to tell right now what this group’s legacy will be, but I feel good about the way they’re handling everything.”
Individual men’s event winners included David Musson, who claimed his second consecutive javelin national championship by responding to an early challenge from Cedarville University’s Greg Hannay, who broke his father’s school-record with a mark of 202-feet, 11-inches on his second throw of the preliminary round. Musson regained the lead on his final throw of prelims, going 204-feet, 9-inches, before extending his lead with a 207-foot, 10-inch heave on his second of three throws in the final round.
Musson concluded his collegiate career with the victory, and three of his teammates also registered points in the competition as Justin Young, Matt Nash, and Richy Nance finished sixth, seventh, and eighth, respectively.
“David started out a little bit slow but he responded very well to some good competition,” said Azusa Pacific men’s track & field head coach Kevin Reid.
Nash was also the decathlon runner-up behind Cedarville’s James Blackwell, finishing with 6,129 points, while Young scored 6,078 points to claim third. Nash and Blackwell were the only two competitors to register 3,000-point second-day totals. Tomek Czerwinski
“The decathlon had some good events along with some disappointments, but they all finished well which was good to see,” Reid said.
The Cougars’ men’s 4x800 meter relay finished the day with a runaway victory, posting a time of 7:50.50 to claim the win. Junior Riley McKee got in front on the opening lap and handed the lead to a trio of freshmen, with Sam Baker and Aaron Potts extending the lead for the winning anchor leg from Ryan Phillips, who crossed the line almost 3.5 seconds ahead of the runner-up relay from Grace (Ind.).
Other top-three finishes for Azusa Pacific included Breanna Leslie and LaJuan Moye, who both came in second place in the high jump, along with Kim Sanchez clearing 10-feet, 11.75-inches for second place in the women’s pole vault. Brad Beckwith took third in the men’s hammer throw, launching a career-best 168-foot throw in the finals.
“We’ve been on a pretty good roll going back the last few weeks, and we have the opportunity to get it going early in the field events tomorrow,” Reid said. “I think we have a chance to get that ball rolling again tomorrow, and once that happens with how we usually compete traditionally, it makes us very tough to stop.”
The NCCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships conclude with finals in 14 more events on Saturday. Azusa Pacific has entries in all three of the remaining men’s and women’s field event competitions (shot put, discus, and long jump). The Cougars are also represented on the track in all 11 men’s finals and nine of the 11 women’s finals.
“We had a lot of consistency today, and in the finals we did what we were supposed to do,” Reid said. “In the trials we advanced just about everybody we had planned on getting through, and that’s important because I always think Friday can be a little tougher than Saturday in a championship setting, especially for favorites, because there’s an added piece of pressure in making sure you get to the final. Once you’re there, you can relax and score your points, but you’ve got to get there first.”
Saturday’s highlights include three of eight finalists in both of the men’s hurdles races (110-meter and 400-meter), and the Cougars also have three entries in three other men’s races (800-meter, 1500-meter, and 3000-meter steeplechase). The women’s schedule features an expanded role from Leslie, who is scheduled to compete in three events (long jump, 200 meters, 100-meter hurdles) along with running the anchor leg for both the 4x100 and 4x400 meter relays.