After the tragic passing of Collen Kausard, assistant coach Kara Willard was hired as the new head coach for the acro and tumbling team.
Any newly hired head coach will likely feel a mixed bag of emotions – the pressures, the excitement, the dream of winning a championship. All of those feelings become even more anxiety-driven when considering the unconventional environment we are still attempting to adapt to. For Kara Willard, however, that bag has been amplified into a sack.
When Willard first appeared on Azusa’s campus in 2008, she was a student-athlete for the cheer team coming from Tacoma, Washington. Two years into her collegiate career, Azusa Pacific won a national championship under the National Cheerleaders Association, with Willard, as a sophomore, playing an important role in that triumph. It would only be the beginning.
The following year the program made a transition into acrobatics and tumbling, a brand new collegiate sport in which APU was one of the six founding programs.
“Being a part of that transition, it was one of those moments when you know that you are pioneering something brand new and not knowing what the ultimate outcome would be. But we were confident that what we were doing was going to be even more exciting than what we were already participating in,” said Willard.
She was indeed a part of history. In her first season, she was rewarded with the Leadership Award. She would win it again her senior year, this time as team captain. She also won a national championship that season, winning for her performance during the 7-Element event.
All of this success brought her back to the program after graduation as an assistant coach, a title she held for seven years – her whole professional career. In that time, she helped bring tremendous success to the program, including five National Collegiate Acrobatics and Tumbling Association (NCATA) National Championship semi-final appearances and a national runner-up finish in 2014.
Indeed the program’s success is a testament to Willard and the remaining coaching staff’s leadership qualities. Yet the results do little to show just how committed Willard is to her work. Along with coaching the girls, she was a coordinator for player recruiting, helped develop strength and conditioning programs and placed a special emphasis on the enhancement of the sport by being a part of several NCATA committees.
If you ask Willard about her time at APU, she would certainly admit that it was one full of consistency. As a competitor, it was embodied through constant joy and effort. As a coach, constant development and love. As a pioneer for the sport, constant admiration and pride.
Unfortunately, one of those constants will not be a part of her transition into the head coaching role, a hire that APU athletic director Gary Pine announced on Nov. 18.
In late August, acro and tumbling suffered a tremendous blow with the loss of Collen Kausrud, who had been the head coach for the entirety of the program’s history. For Willard, Kausrud was her most prevalent constant, as she was her friend and teacher from the moment she left home and made it to Azusa.
“She had been training me to take over the program for quite some time. And I’m just so thankful for all of the years that she spent investing in me,” she said about Kausrud. “All the progress we made together really puts into perspective all the time we shared. She’s with me in spirit, and she’ll guide me through pouring into the program as much as she did.”
Whether it be Kausrud instructing her for the cheer team or them working together to make acro and tumbling the sport APU’s community gladly supports today, Willard always understood Kausrud as a motherly-figure. Through that relationship, the program’s newest head coach was able to witness the former’s cherished ethos of leadership and work ethic. It is something that Willard hopes to mimic.
“She was very determined to get this sport off the ground and make it something that was to be respected on campus. Pulling from that determination is a huge part of my motivation,” Willard said. “And she had an incredible competitive spirit. She instilled that in me, and it is something I continue to try and embody as a coach.”
All of this does not deny the undeniable truth; this transition for Willard will be quite difficult. Along with being asked to lead a squad that was confronted with a devastating tragedy, she will also have to confront the COVID-19 crisis with the possibility of competition among the mats not taking place during the spring.
Similar to what Rudy Carlton is experiencing with the football program, Willard will have to face that potential blockade as a first-year head coach. Certainly, there is room for optimism, as the PacWest Conference Executive Board voted unanimously to allow their programs the chance to return to play. While that decision does not impact acro and tumbling directly, it is proof that there remains a constant effort among collegiate boards, who are associated with the campus, to push for a return of athletics.
“With everything going on with covid, I keep preaching to my athletes that we can only control our current circumstances. There’s nothing we can control in terms of the decisions that will be made about what our season is going to look like. So right now, our team just needs to stay motivated and be proud of what we continue to bring to the table,” she said.
Somehow, the narrative for Willard’s squad continues to evolve even further. Along with all of this, NCATA and the rest of the acro and tumbling community were given the NCAA emerging sport status early in August, meaning that if the spring season does indeed happen, it will be the first where competition will be professionally recognized by the largest collegiate athletic association in the world.
Despite all the circumstances surrounding the program’s newest hire, there remains one thing that holds importance above anything else: the heart and spirit of her departed mentor. Willard watched her lead for over a decade. She noticed her ability to place an emphasis on her athletes and doing so through a Christ-like mentality. Yet she did not just stand as an observer. Willard learned how to apply those mentalities in her coaching style. This is why, for Pine, the hire was an easy choice. She is ready to guide the program further.
“Colleen never needed the spotlight. She loved coming alongside her athletes and serving them rather than herself. You would always feel her presence but she was never the loudest one in the room,” Willard said. “That ability of servant leadership is what I strive for – to serve others first.”
People always note that story is in everything. This could not be more true for Willard and her team. Right now, it is a story of great pain. The arc, however, has not been completed. The climax will be seen when those ladies go out and compete to honor the legacy and tradition of a program that Krausard spent an entire decade erecting.
With Willard at the helm, there is little doubt from the APU family that this story will have a wonderful ending.