Last year, Cougar Athletics counted down the last 30 days of summer with the Cougar Countdown blog series, which contained 30 items of interest to Cougar fans leading into the 2012-13 school year. For the summer of 2013, Cougar Athletics takes a look back with a ranking of Azusa Pacific’s top 13 teams of all-time, which was compiled by the office of Sports Information with input from current and past coaches and administrators. The top 13 teams in Cougar Athletics history will be revealed one at a time each Thursday throughout the summer, culminating with the No. 1 team on August 22.
The countdown continues with the No. 9 team:
1983 Azusa Pacific Track & Field
NAIA Men’s Outdoor Track & Field National Champions
NAIA District III Men’s Track & Field Champions
They refer to themselves as “The Originals,” and Azusa Pacific’s 1983 track & field team certainly set the tone for three decades of athletic excellence when they claimed the school’s first men’s NAIA national title in a sport that boasts 30 of the Cougars’ 37 NAIA national championships.
The 1983 title came after the Cougars had posted a runner-up finish the previous year to establish the program as a legitimate title contender. Edged in 1982 by Abilene Christian in its final season of NAIA competition before moving on to NCAA Division II, Azusa Pacific returned to Charleston, W.Va., to claim its first of seven consecutive outdoor national titles. In fact, the Cougars would win 11 NAIA championships in the next 13 seasons under NAIA Hall of Fame head coach Terry Franson, who had taken over the track & field program in 1981 after serving two seasons as an assistant coach under Marvin Mardock.
“It was extremely significant because it was new territory,” Franson said. “I knew as a team that we would strive to be the best we could be, but once we won, we realized we could do this. We were entering a new domain, and our challenge would be to see how we could keep it going. There was no mountain too high for that group. Whether we went up against UCLA, USC, or anybody, we would take them on. The confidence and the belief that group had in one another is what set the template for the future. You look back now and realize how it all started, and it’s incredible to see that the tradition has continued on, not just in track & field, but athletics in general.”
Led by Innocent Egbunike and Mike Barnett, the defending 100-meter (Egbunike) and javelin (Barnett) national champions, Azusa Pacific took a deep, talented group to the 1983 championships. The Cougars posted 16 NAIA All-American performances, including five event national championships, en route to a championship-total of 94 points, which was then the second-highest tally NAIA history. The 58-point margin of victory over runner-up Saginaw Valley State still remains as the NAIA’s second-widest winning margin in men’s outdoor track & field.
“Our home track in 1983 was the dirt track (at Hillside campus), and when we would go over to Cal Poly Pomona to use their all-weather track we thought that was the biggest treat in the world,” Franson recalled. “We also had the early connection to Nigerian athletes, and Innocent was our first great one. We had some teams that represented themselves very well, even competing at the Division I level of competition in regular-season meets. There were some years during that time where we might have been a top-five team at a Division I championship with the athletes we had.”
The five individual championships tied an NAIA record, which Azusa Pacific later extended with six individual titles in 1991 and 1992. Egbunike led the way, sweeping the 100-meter and 200-meter titles while anchoring the victorious 4x400 meter relay to win the first of his three consecutive Herbert B. Marett Outstanding Performer awards, while Barnett became just the third person ever to win an NAIA event four consecutive years as he broke his own national-record in the javelin.
“After coming so close to winning in 1982, I remember that we were training that following year to win,” Barnett said. “I didn’t play football that year because I wanted to be the best I could be in hammer and javelin for my senior year. These are guys who created an incredible bond, and even though it was 30 years ago, we’re still good friends.”
The Cougars’ championship contingent also featured the first of four consecutive discus national titles for Nigerian freshman Christian Okoye, joining Barnett and Egbunike to represent half of the NAIA’s six four-time event champions to that point. Okoye’s storied career also involved a detour from the dirt track at Azusa Pacific’s old Hillside campus to the football field, joining several other dual-sport athletes who competed in both football and track & field. Okoye went on to become arguably Azusa Pacific’s most-recognized athlete, turning his introduction to the sport of football at Hillside Field into a successful six-year NFL career as a running back for the Kansas City Chiefs.
“Many of the athletes in those days were dual-sport athletes,” Franson said. “As we got better, we got more specific, and even Christian who went on to become a great NFL player, didn’t play football his first two years here because he had never played before and was so good at track & field.”
Barnett would go on to place seventh in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, while Egbunike won a 4x400 meter relay bronze medal for Nigeria in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Egbunike also made it to the Olympic final in the individual 400 meters, placing sixth.
Although the individual champions took the spotlight, the thorough, well-balanced effort was built on solid performances throughout the meet. In the hammer, Azusa Pacific claimed five of the six All-American awards, as Barnett, Ron Ponciano, Okoye, Phil Mann and John Hunt claimed second through sixth place behind national champion Roger Axelsson (Point Loma).
“We had such a great group,” Okoye recalled. “We had such a great time, and we knew what we could do on the track, so we just went out there and had a great time as a group. The results were secondary to that for us.”
Ponciano added another All-American effort placing sixth in the discus, and a trio of All-Americans in the decathlon established the foundation for Azusa Pacific’s reputation for producing the nation’s top collegiate decathletes. Following in the footsteps of Bruce Kupersmith, a 1975-76 NAIA All-American, and 1979-80 NAIA national champion Gary Wise, the 1983 trio of Doug Loisel, Ted Campbell, and Shane Paynter claimed second, fourth, and sixth, respectively. Loisel’s runner-up finish was his first of three NAIA All-American honors, and a year later he became Azusa Pacific’s second decathlon national champion. The Cougars’ decathlon tradition would go on to produce NAIA All-Americans 19 times in 20 seasons spanning from 1983-2002, including Olympic decathlon medalists Dave Johnson (1992 bronze) and Bryan Clay (2008 gold and 2004 silver).
“My coaching philosophy was to raise up and train competitors who would be seen by a broader audience for their great athletic accomplishments,” Franson said. “I do believe that when we began to compete at that high level and began to win national championships, it had a really positive effect on the university and specifically the athletic program. People turned their heads and thought about us. We worked hard to be a team that would bring glory and honor to Christ, and our performance would be at the highest possible level regardless of having a dirt track, limited facilities, or a limited travel budget. We would max it out with whatever we had.”
Roosevelt Kent was less than a foot away from winning his own national championship in the triple jump, finishing runner-up with a leap of 49-feet, 4-inches to claim his first of three NAIA All-American honors, and Mike Martinez posted an All-American performance by taking sixth place in the 400-meter hurdles. Both Kent and Martinez were Azusa Pacific’s first NAIA All-Americans in their respective events, as was the 4x400 meter relay team of John Shalongo, Loisel, Campbell, and Egbunike, which closed out the meet with the Cougars’ fifth event win of the championship meet.
While the men’s program was in the process of claiming its first NAIA title, the developing women’s program posted a top-10 performance in just its third season of competition, planting the early seeds of a budding dynasty in women’s track & field that would result in the Cougars’ first women’s national title 20 years later in 2003 under fourth-year head coach Mike Barnett.
“In 1983, I never would have thought about being a track & field coach, but I remember when I did come back and we won the first women’s team title in 2003, I just tried to coach the way I watched Terry coach us,” Barnett said. “If I’ve learned anything from Terry, it’s that if you set the bar, Azusa Pacific athletes usually reach it. We were bought-in to Terry’s leadership, because he just believed in you. You didn’t want to let him down, so you worked hard and listened to what he had to say. The focus wasn’t on winning, it was on being excellent in every area of your life, and it was special to win for him.”
The 1983 women’s team scored 16 points to finish in 10th, collecting four NAIA All-American honors in one meet for the first time in program history. Leading the way was senior Liz Garman, the NAIA marathon champion in 1982 before posting a runner-up finish in 1983 as she concluded her career with three consecutive NAIA All-American honors in the marathon. Junior Corrine DeJong registered fifth in the discus, while sophomore Casey Giacomazzi became a two-time NAIA All-American in javelin with her fourth-place finish. Freshman Julie Fricke added a fifth-place finish in the 100-meter hurdles to round out the scoring for the Cougars.
All four earned the program’s first All-American honors in their respective events, and they represented four of Azusa Pacific’s first five NAIA All-American athletes in women’s track & field (1981-82 All-American high jumper Charmaine Collins had graduated in 1982).