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Counting Down: No. 3

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Azusa Pacific swept the 2003 men's and women's indoor NAIA championships, the first women's track and field national championship in program history.

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August 8, 2013
Joe Reinsch

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.

MAY 30 -- No. 13: 2000 Softball
JUNE 6 -- No. 12: 2005 Men’s Tennis
JUNE 13 -- No. 11: 1985 Football
JUNE 20 -- No. 10: 1998 Men’s Basketball
JUNE 27 -- No. 9: 1983 Track & Field
JULY 4 -- No. 8: 2011 Women’s Basketball
JULY 11 -- No. 7: 1980 Volleyball
JULY 18 -- No. 6: 2007 Baseball
JULY 25 -- No. 5: 2007 Men’s Soccer
AUGUST 1 -- No. 4: 2000-01 Men’s Basketball

The countdown continues with the No. 3 team:

2003 Azusa Pacific Track and Field

NAIA Women’s Indoor and Outdoor Track & Field National Champions
NAIA Men’s Indoor Track & Field National Champions
NAIA Men’s Outdoor Track & Field National Runner-Up
GSAC Men’s & Women’s Track & Field Champions

2003 Azusa Pacific Track & Field Roster
2003 Azusa Pacific Track & Field Top Performances

On the 20th anniversary weekend of the origin of a men’s track and field dynasty, Azusa Pacific extended its championship tradition to women’s track & field, sweeping the NAIA’s 2003 indoor and outdoor national championships.

Winning championships was nothing new for Azusa Pacific, which had piled up 11 outdoor national titles in a 13-year span under Cougar coaching legend Terry Franson and had already added four more (two outdoor and two indoor) from 1996 to 2002 under Kevin Reid. In fact, the Cougars entered 2003 having won three consecutive men’s national championship meets, winning the 2001 outdoor as well as both indoor and outdoor titles in 2002.

Bringing that dynasty into the realm of women’s track and field was the culmination of the vision to create the most complete combined program in the history of NAIA track and field. Azusa Pacific had become just the fifth school in NAIA history to sweep the men’s and women’s national championships in the same meet, and it uniquely connected the men’s and women’s programs as national champions during separate title streaks for each team. For the men, it was the program’s 16th overall NAIA championship, concluding a run of four consecutive titles; for the women, it kicked off a run of four straight titles, as the Cougars became the first women’s program to sweep the NAIA indoor and outdoor championships in back-to-back years (2003 and 2004).

The women fueled their championship run with the motivation from national runner-up finishes in 2002 at both the indoor and outdoor championships, the latter by a margin of just seven points. With top-five finishes at four consecutive outdoor championship meets, the Cougars were on the doorstep of a title. Fourteen of the 15 members of the 2002 runner-up squad returned for head coach Mike Barnett in 2003, and they claimed the first women’s title in program history during the 20-year anniversary season of Azusa Pacific’s first men’s track and field NAIA championship team, which Barnett helped lead as an athlete.

“I remember the indoor championship specifically because it was the first one,” Barnett recalled. “You can’t just go out and win because you want to win – it took fitness, belief, preparation, and because of all those things, that was definitely one of the most memorable meets I can remember.”

They did so in impressive fashion, officially clinching the meet with Lisette Saucedo’s second-place 800-meter run, although the meet championship was practically assured before the final day of competition had even begun, based on the placement of Cougars throughout Saturday’s championship finals.

“They set that tradition and wanted to make sure they were disciplined enough to hold each other accountable to that goal,” Barnett said. “We knew we were in this for the long haul, and whether we won another championship or not, we learn something every year about character, teamwork, and discipline. When it all comes together like it did in 2003, it’s definitely special.”

Saucedo’s run was just the beginning of what Barnett remembers as a “feeding frenzy,” as the Cougars feasted on championship points from start to finish. Vivian Chukwuemeka and Vanessa Wilhelm padded the lead by wrapping up 16 more points in the shot put, as Chukwuemeka set an NAIA record of 59-feet, 2-inches while Wilhelm claimed third place in the event.

The eight points from Saucedo in the 800 pushed Azusa Pacific’s point total to 54 points, at which point the Cougars could have withdrawn from every remaining event and still finished ahead of second-place Doane (Neb.), which finished with 51 points but had only two entries left in the meet (5,000 and 4x400 relay) at that point.

“I remember that day like it was yesterday,” Wilhelm said. “We had a team meeting in the hallway Friday night to go through the day’s events, and I remember feeling less pressure because of it. There wasn’t a lot of pressure to perform well, we just had to do what we’d done all year long. We always expected the younger athletes to step up and pull along our numbers to nationals. That gave us those opportunities to place there, because we expected them to step up and pull their weight.”

From sprints to field events, distance and relays, Azusa Pacific seemingly extended its lead with each passing event. Brianna Carstensen won the 1000-meters, combining with Christine Krause’s fourth-place finish to add 14 points, and Briana Horton tallied a point by taking sixth in the 3,000. Niema Golphin registered second in the 200 meters, and Mireya Beltran also took second in the high jump. The frenzy never subsided, as the Cougars closed out the meet with a sweep of the distance medley and 4x400 relays for a final 121-point total.

“We all pushed each other, and it went across the board,” Wilhelm said. “It was sprinters, jumpers, throwers, and the distance team – we all encouraged each other and became a tight-knit family. To me, the significance of winning was huge because not only were we training together, it represented a culmination of our friendship as well.”

The 121 points were the third-highest in NAIA women’s indoor championship history, and the 70-point margin of victory over Doane was the widest winning margin since Jackson State won the inaugural meet in 1981 by a spread of 96 points. Chukwuemeka set NAIA records in both of her championship performances, the shot put and the weight throw, and she shared Co-Outstanding Performer of the Meet with Carstensen, who was part of three event victories including a meet record.

“We had a complete team for sure between multi-events, throwers, and sprinters, but we began to move into those first couple of championships and slowly began building into the distance program,” Barnett said. “I wanted to be able to win as a team and give athletes in all the events a chance to score and contribute to a championship.

Making the win even sweeter was the opportunity to share the celebration with Azusa Pacific’s men, who were in the process of extending their own championship streak to four consecutive national meets.

“We got so close to winning in 2002, so this group was hungry,” Barnett said. “I remember Friday night in the hallway of our hotel, I told the team the meet was over. We had a huge lead and were in the finals of just about every event, so I told them to go enjoy it. Not only did we win, but we were feeding off the men, and they were feeding off of us. Seeing them rise to the occasion and knowing they had worked so hard towards what had been a four-year goal to put together a team that could rise to the top of the podium was a special moment. To be able to win it along with the men made it that much more special.”

The Cougar men also claimed their title by drawing motivation from the previous year, as they set out to answer any doubters who believed their success as a program would decline following the 2002 graduation of four-year greats Bryan Clay, Jesse Roberge, and Chris Carlson.

“Leading into this meet, we were coming out of the careers of Clay and Roberge, who were arguably two of the best guys to ever come through the program,” Reid said. “Not only did you have the athletic standpoint of their individual accomplishments, but also who they were as team leaders during their time for the year or so after they were gone, and their leadership and direction was continuing with guys like Rob Jarvis, Dominique DeGrammont, Tim Ramirez, and that whole middle distance group that was so strong. They established a pretty high bar that they continued to jump over.”

Despite winning by much closer than the 70-point margin the women built, the men’s team was just as solid on the final day of competition, racking up 55 of its 61 points from the final Friday event (4x800 relay) through the conclusion of Saturday’s finals. The Cougars won each of its first two events on the track to take the lead for good, scoring 10 points each with wins from DeGrammont in the 55-meter hurdles and Nate Farris in the 600. Another individual title for Ramirez in the 800 was followed by Micah Strom’s runner-up performance in the 1000 meters, giving Azusa Pacific first- or second-place finishes in all four individual races in which it had an entry in the finals.

“The thing that sticks out the most from this group is at the indoor meet that year, there was a run of within the schedule a little bit over an hour where it seemed like we won every event on the track,” Reid remembered. “It was just a strong run that really just shut everything down. It wasn’t just about the big-time guys we had, we brought a number of guys who all contributed on a bunch of different levels, and it was an interesting mix of guys on that team.”

Two more scoring performances in the relays, along with a point each from Micah Goins (shot put) and Brian Wardell (1000 meters) gave Azusa Pacific a comfortable winning margin of 17.5 points and a 61-point championship total. Reid and Barnett swept the NAIA Indoor Coach of the Year honors for leading the Cougars to the men’s and women’s title sweep.

“Having both teams be able to celebrate a championship together was special,” Reid said. “So much of the identity had been with the men for years and years, and it was time for the women to step into the spotlight after seeing that same development become an expectation they wanted for themselves to be at that same level.”

During outdoor season, the Cougars swept the Golden State Athletic Conference men’s and women’s championships for the third straight year in a meet which featured the return of Wilhelm to the women’s team as she continued to recover from a severe leg injury she had suffered when she was hit in the leg by a throw during hammer practice five weeks earlier. The GSAC championship meet was Wilhelm’s sole opportunity to post qualifying marks for the upcoming NAIA outdoor championship meet.

Wilhelm came through, setting the conference meet-record in the hammer and also winning the individual javelin title, and she was also able to qualify for the shot put and discus to set up another national championship effort.

“That had been the first year I stayed in California to train throughout the summer,” Wilhelm said. “I knew it was my last year, and if I trained I could get that extra edge over the year before. When the team saw how close we could be, everybody looked at their own performances and training and decided we could do a little better, and it showed the next year.”

Wilhelm teamed up with Chukwuemeka for a whopping 50 points at the national outdoor championship meet, and Chukwuemeka was again named the Outstanding Performer of the Meet by winning national shot put and discus titles to go with a third-place showing in the hammer.

“At that point, I remember feeling like I had done my job,” Wilhelm said. “I did what I could with what I had at that moment in time. As a senior, just doing the best I could do was all I focused on doing, getting the job done regardless of what the final outcome was.”

“I don’t feel like I ever looked on winning as a milestone of huge significance until after I had graduated and realized what a great accomplishment it was for the school. I was just proud to have the opportunity to represent the school, my coaches, and my teammates. Azusa Pacific made a big impression on my life; I was always grateful to the athletic administration for providing the opportunities we had to travel and compete. Not every team gets that kind of support, so I always considered it a privilege to compete for Azusa Pacific.”

The Cougars generated another 15 points out of the relays, winning the 4x800 meter relay while placing fifth in the 4x400 and eighth in the 4x100. The remaining 21 points came without the benefit of another top-two finisher. Carstensen (third) and Krause (sixth) tallied a combined nine points in the 1500 meters, and Lepp was third in the 400 hurdles for another six-point contribution. Azusa Pacific’s only other scorers were Beltran with a fifth-place high jump and Laurie Ramirez taking seventh place in the 800.

The balanced performance from an emerging group of runners in the middle-distance and disctance events also helped set the foundation for a competitive cross country program that claimed its first national championship in women’s cross country in 2008. It was also an encore performance that helped erase any lingering bitter memories of unfulfilled expectations the previous year, as Azusa Pacific secured its championship of the outdoor variety, 20 years to the weekend when Barnett had helped lead the Cougars to their first men’s track & field national title back in 1983.

“With both myself and Kevin, you had two coaches who came from the Franson era, who believed in the athletes and not only supported them, but came alongside them and helped them believe in themselves,” Barnett said. “We had a special group of athletes, and when you keep reminding them to push through it and work harder, they’re going to succeed because it’s not just about having success on the track. We handed down what Terry had handed down to us, which is a belief in themselves and in the work and preparation that’s been done.”

Azusa Pacific’s two-time defending outdoor national champion men’s team registered a third-place finish, winning four events over the course of the three-day meet. Leading the way was Ramirez, who anchored the Cougars’ winning 4x800 relay team before winning the 800 meter individually. He also helped close out the meet with another relay victory, this time in the 4x400, and DeGrammont matched the oldest record in NAIA history as he clocked 13.74 in the 110-meter hurdles to equal 1972 Olympic gold medalist Rodney Milburn’s hand-timed 13.5-second performance from 1972.

“That team was definitely one of the higher level teams we’ve had, talent-wise,” Reid said. “When kids get here, winning championships is expected, but more than that, we work on getting them to believe that good things are going to happen in the end, even if it doesn’t always result in a championship. If the process is good day to day, they’re here because they can do certain things, and they’ll keep improving. As long as we keep bringing in the right people, I think the culture that we have here will continue to breed success, and we hope that means championships again down the line even though where we’re going is so much more competitive.”

Azusa Pacific never again repeated a championship-meet sweep of both men’s and women’s national titles until doing so in 2013 at the National Christian College Athletic Association Championships, and the Cougars are one of just two NAIA track and field programs to claim at least seven national titles in both men’s and women’s track and field. Another men’s indoor national title in 2004, coupled with another women’s indoor/outdoor national title sweep, made Azusa Pacific the only school in NAIA history to claim three of the four national titles for men’s and women’s track and field during both indoor and outdoor seasons.