OLATHE, Kan. -- For Jesse Roberge, it was the perfect way to finish a collegiate career. The senior thrower out of Yelm, Wash., overcame a slow start to finish sixth in the men's discus and in the process clinch another NAIA track & field championship for Azusa Pacific.
Roberge's performance in the discus, combined with his winning efforts in the hammer and shot earlier in the meet, allowed Azusa Pacific to hold off a fast charging Life University (Ga.) and claim the national championship by a score of 54-50 over Life. Wisconsin-Parkside was third with 33 points.
"Last year's championship was exciting because we didn't miss a beat," said Azusa Pacific men's coach Kevin Reid. "This year we came in dinged up and had to scrap for the points and the title. I'm extremely happy for the way Jesse, Bryan (Clay) and Chris (Carlson) finish off their careers.
Seniors Bryan Clay, Chris Carlson and Roberge had a hand in all 54 of Azusa Pacific's points. Roberge accounted for 23, Clay tallied 18 and Carlson scored 11. Clay and Carlson were part of the Cougars' 4x100-meter relay that recorded the other 2 points.
Roberge and Clay were named the Most Outstanding Performers of the meet while Reid garnered NAIA Coach of the Year recognition.
"To see Bryan and Jesse get the MVP award is unbelievable," added Reid. "It's the perfect culmination to their careers."
Azusa Pacific opened the third and final day of the meet with 49 points and the lead. Life wasn't even on the board. However, the Eagles scored 43 points in a matter of 4 hours to close in on the Cougars and set up a dramatic sprint to the title by way of the 5000 meters, where Life had 2 of the top 3 times from the prelims, and the discus, where Life also had the NAIA's top thrower from this season, Tobias Melin.
In a major break for the Cougars, Life was unable to wrestle away the lead via the 5000, scoring just 1 point and allowing the Cougars to retain a 7-point cushion heading into the discus. With all eyes on Roberge and Tobias, the national championship literally came down to every turn of the foot. Though Tobias opened with a respectable 166' 3" on his first throw, he struggled to stay in the sector or ring the rest of the way, fouling on his next 5 throws. Meanwhile Roberge overcame a sluggish effort in the prelims with improvements on his fourth and sixth throws, finishing sixth with a 165' 5". And 4 throwers later, when Tobias threw out of the sector on his final throw, Azusa Pacific had laid claim on its 13th NAIA outdoor track championship, and its third straight (last year's outdoor and this year's indoor and outdoor).
"Going into my last throw I knew I couldn't finish lower than sixth," said Roberge. "The coaches didn't want me to know, but Bryan said the championship came down to me. I need a challenge to perform and that helped. This has been a euphoric meet for me. And to share the MVP with Bryan is better than winning it by myself."
The Cougars scored only 5 points on the day, 3 from Roberge and 2 more from the 4x100-meter relay, which hiccupped on its first 2 exchanges and yet was still in the lead heading into the final leg before Carlson was obstructed in his lane by a Southern Nazarene runner. As a result, the Cougars fell to seventh with a 41.82.
"We had to get a break in the 5000, and we did," said Reid as he reflected on the meet. "I wasn't feeling real good about our chances of winning the title, but I knew the 5000 was competitive and the Life runners were trying to do the steeple/5000 double which is very hard to pull off."
With the title, Azusa Pacific has now won 13 men's outdoor championships since 1983, the most in NAIA history, and their 15th overall in track & field combined with the indoor crowns they won in 1996 and again this past March.
In an exact repeat of the 2002 NAIA Indoor Championship Meet, which the Cougar men won as well, the Cougar women finished as the national runner-up again. Doane College (Neb.) successfully defended its national championship with 67 points. Azusa Pacific and Central State University (Ohio) tied for second with 60 points.
Vivian Chukwuemeka shook off the disappointment of yesterday's foul out in the discus and came roaring back with the most dominating performance in NAIA women's shot put history. She shattered the NAIA record by more than 7 feet with a lifetime best put of 59' 7 1/2", and in the process set the African record as well. Not only did Chukwuemeka exceed 17.5 meters on all 6 of her puts, she twice eclipsed the 18-meter mark for the first time in her life. No other competitor in the field reached 14.25 meters. Chukwuemeka beat her nearest rival by nearly 13 feet.
"I'm so happy," said Chukwuemeka. "I'm the first female in Africa to go over 18 meters. Coming here, I felt I was going to do 18 meters. I kept pushing and telling myself I'm here to score."
Junior Vanessa Wilhelm, who won the javelin yesterday and was second in the hammer and eighth in the discus on Thursday, came back to finish fifth in the shot put today with a personal-record throw of 44' 9 3/4". Her 23 points were the most by any female competitor and therefore earned her Co-Most Outstanding Performer of the meet, joining Airat Bakare (1988) as the only Cougars ever to be so honored.
Freshman Brianna Carstensen capped an outstanding rookie collegiate season with third-place finishes in the 1500 meters (4:36.35) and 800 meters (2:13.89) while senior Becki Sweatman, running her first-ever marathon, clocked a 3:19:01.26 to place a surprising sixth in the field and supply the Cougar women with a bonus 3 points.