DAY 28 (Aug. 28): The Biola Rivalry Survives
In recent years, the opinion of a few was that one of the best college rivalries along the west coast had seen its best days and was headed for irrelevance.
A long stretch of Azusa Pacific dominance over Biola, particularly in men’s basketball – the crown jewel of Biola’s entire athletic program – had some people wondering if the rivalry would ever be the same. It was around that time that a certain article appeared on the Cougar Athletics website that impatiently proclaimed the Azusa Pacific-Biola rivalry “over,” “done,” and “finished.”
Later that same year, Biola silenced a crowd of over 2,500 with its biggest win over the Cougars in nearly 20 years, holding Azusa Pacific to just 54 points, its lowest scoring total by a Cougar team in the Felix Event Center since the building’s opening in 2001. The next year Biola claimed double-digit wins in both regular-season meetings before Azusa Pacific rallied from double-digits to conjure a one-point overtime win in the conference tournament, and the Cougars built on that win with five more postseason victories to advance to the national title game for the second time in program history.
It was everything an authentic rivalry should be. One side pushes, the other side pushes back. The pain of losing to any other school is uncomfortable, but the sting of defeat against Biola feels like a punch to the gut. A loss to Biola leaves an unmistakable knot in the stomach that only goes away with the elation of returning the favor to the other side, and it’s not limited to men’s basketball.
In 2009, the Azusa Pacific men’s soccer team won 16 of 17 games against every opponent except Biola, but it couldn’t solve the Eagles in a pair of head-to-head matchups that resulted in 1-0 defeats. The second of those losses came in the conference tournament semifinals, and it kept the Cougars (ranked No. 9 in the NAIA at the time) from qualifying for the national tournament.
In the summer of 2011, Azusa Pacific and two other Golden State Athletic Conference charter members (Fresno Pacific and Point Loma) initiated a three-year transition into NCAA Division II and new membership affiliation in the Pacific West Conference. That meant the rivalry within the confines of the GSAC was effectively over, and the conference itself did the rivalry no favors by scheduling the league’s premier regular-season event in early January last year with both student bodies still enjoying their Christmas break. Predictably, the timing of the game drew one of the smallest crowds in the history of the rivalry, a paltry 879 to the spacious 3,500-seat Felix Event Center, which had filled to near-capacity annually every time the Eagles came calling.
It may have been a disappointing end to the GSAC chapter of the Azusa Pacific-Biola rivalry, but Cougar men’s basketball head coach Justin Leslie, who owns a modest 6-5 career record against the Eagles, is one of many constituents who wasn’t ready to let the rivalry die. Leslie originally intended to play Biola during the 2012-13 season at Staples Center in conjunction with an NBA game, but negotiations hit an unexpected snag after the NBA schedule was released. Still, the programs have agreed in principle to continue the rivalry this season and are currently working to set a date and location that fits the schedule for both teams.
“I plan on playing them anyway, because it’s a great experience for the student body and for the student-athletes,” Leslie explained. “I also wanted to keep them on the schedule so that they can see they have nothing else like it on the rest of their schedule. I think this rivalry is one worth pursuing in conference play, and I hope they can see that the PacWest might also be a good fit for Biola.”
Every fall and winter sport in which Biola and Azusa Pacific both compete will bring the rivals together again in non-conference action. For the soccer programs, that entails a rivalry clash this Saturday night during the new student orientation weekend. It will be the first-ever games under the brand-new lights which were installed at the Cougar Soccer Complex this past summer, and a facility-record crowd is expected for the first nighttime soccer for Azusa Pacific since its new facility was built in 2002.
Azusa Pacific’s volleyball team closes out its regular season with a visit to Biola, and in the spring the Cougar baseball and softball teams have plans to include Biola in their non-conference scheduling.
“I want as many of our teams as possible to continue playing Biola,” said Azusa Pacific Director of Athletics Gary Pine, who penned the infamous “end-of-the-rivalry” article nearly four years ago. “This rivalry is so unique and so passionate, and as we transition into a new era of athletic competition, we also want to embrace this special tradition we have with Biola.”