Clause icon 2013.jpgNow that Azusa Pacific is in its final stages of transitioning from NAIA to NCAA Division II, the identity of the Athletics Department has changed. More recruits are expressing their interest in the university as coaches look for even more highly qualified athletes. The NCAA logo posted around campus speaks clearly to APU’s commitment to excellence.

“The first conversation is no longer an education of what the NAIA is and having to justify how good the level you play at is,” men’s basketball head coach Justin Leslie said. “It’s now self-evident. We don’t have to go in and beat our chests and brag that we’re some great, wonderful thing. It’s great that we’re a part of a bigger picture and as a result, more people are inclined to want to hear the message.”

The Athletics Department is seeing a greater influx of interested recruits and as a result, the standards for APU’s student athletes have changed. But the larger pool of athletically talented applicants is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to what coaches consider when recruiting a new Cougar.

Football and men’s basketball have seen the largest success in their recruiting process thus far, according to Sports Information Director Joe Reinsch. The sports look for similar core values in potential athletes.

“When we do sign somebody or invite them to play for us as a recruited walk-on, we believe they have to have the full package,” football head coach Victor Santa Cruz said. “We had a lot of [potential] athletes who may be athletic and academic, but they just don’t have the personality or the growth mentality we’re looking for as far as our culture. [The recruiting process] is not a perfect science, but I think it’s helped us out to say yes and no about a lot of these conversations.”

Now potential APU athletes show athletic, academic and personal maturity. NAIA athletes rarely receive attention from Division I schools, but the majority of APU’s recent recruits have either been a part of or were recruited by D-I institutions. Because of this, these players are ready for a faster and more physical type of football.

“Now, you’ve got young men who are being recruited by Division I schools as well as Division II schools, and what that brings is a guy who is a little more athletically mature than in the past,” Santa Cruz said. “While there always is a developmental phase for a young man when you never know for sure if he’ll be able to play right away, now you have a more athletically and physically mature young man whose chances of playing right away are much bigger.”

NCAA student athletes must fulfill certain academic requirements, such as taking 16 core classes, earning a minimum 2.0 GPA in them and having a minimum combined SAT score of 820 . The athletes coming in are contributing to the already-stellar academic performance that APU athletics maintains.

“You’re seeing, academically, a more accomplished [person] that has to achieve certain standards … so it’s really provided us with a more well-rounded athlete,” Santa Cruz said. “Not just an athletic person, but also an academically prepared person as well.”

The process of recruiting is now easier due to the NCAA’s regulations. On the surface, the regulations seem to be restrictions, but having organized times during which the coaching staffs are allowed to do all of their recruiting allows each of them to stay efficient with the rest of their schedules.

“There are very defined rules in terms of when you can and can’t contact [a player], when you can see them play and when you can’t, when you’re allowed to sign and when you’re not, so with those dates to work around, it has been good for us in giving a structure to work with,” Leslie said. “When we were with the NAIA, you’re always recruiting. You’re always hustling, you’re always working. It could be overwhelming. A lot of times, we didn’t work as efficiently as we could have. I think it’s made us a better steward of the time that we have.”

According to Leslie, more potential recruits are phoning in with interest in becoming a Cougar. This increase looks to be an early sign of continuous growth toward future success for APU athletics.

“Not that we’re necessarily going to recruit them, but the profile of the institution and the athletic program has been raised as a result of this change. It’s going to continue to allow us to recruit a better student athlete,” Leslie said. “It’s not going to show up immediately, but I think over the next three, four, five years, we’re really going to see that across the board in our sports.”