It’s been a long time coming for the Men’s Cross Country program, especially in the last three years since head coach Sean Smith took over.
On Oct. 20, the Azusa Pacific men’s cross country team lifted their first PacWest trophy in program history. For some on the team, it was their final PacWest meet, for others, it was their first in an APU jersey. But for all of them, they knew what had come before this moment; hard work and dedication, but also the heartbreak of one point.
One point is what has held this program back for the past two years since head coach Sean Smith took over the program.
In his first season leading APU’s squad in 2021, the men’s team finished second in the conference to a very strong Fresno Pacific squad, but they knew that was coming. That team was led by Patrick Kiprop, who then transferred to the University of Arkansas the next semester before claiming three Division I All-American honors between track and cross country. Although the Cougars were a full 13 points behind the Sunbirds at the conference meet, it was the regional meet that broke the team’s heart.
Coming off the highest PacWest finish in program history, the team was ready to make more history: qualifying for their first-ever national meet in the NCAA Division II era.
Coach Smith and the team boarded the plane and headed north with a plan. On a stormy, gritty course in Monmouth, Oregon, Joshua Velasco would finish fourth overall in the region starting the day off with a very low stick score. In cross country, the first five runners per team are scored by the place they finish and the lowest score wins.
For example, on the day, the Cougars finished fourth, 19th, 29th, 32nd, and 55th totaling their score up to 139 points. This score would end up being one point behind Cal Poly Pomona who claimed the final auto-bid into the national meet with a third-place finish.
After putting their whole heart on that course, the Cougars boarded the plane back to Azusa, defeated but with the hope that they would still likely qualify with an at-large bid which meant eight teams across the nation would still get a chance to race at the national meet. It was just one point, that close of a score usually goes, however, that following Monday, the remaining teams were listed. Azusa Pacific was not one of them.
What followed were weeks of grief, confusion, and frustration at that “one point.” The one point that led to a series of doubts and regrets in the minds of those five runners and their coach. “If I had pushed just one second faster, beaten one more person, fought harder, prepared the team better…”
“Being one point off, there were a bunch of different emotions,” Smith said. “I think almost everyone on the team, including coaches, and myself, certainly were [questioning], what could I have done? To get that one point so that we’d be at Nationals? As a coach, I’m [wondering], at what point in the race could I have told someone not to stick on this person? So you’re just thinking, what, what could I have done? What could I have done? What could I have done?”
This sport can be so cruel at times. It’s a story of a team that ran an average of over 80 miles a week for 48 weeks of the year. A team that loved on each other so hard and pushed one another to be their absolute best just to be stripped of a chance at what they worked all year, for some multiple years, for.
Winter training for track season started then spring came and went. The men’s track team claimed their sixth conference title in a row with help from a few of those same men on the regionals roster. They wore their smiles as they lifted the trophy but they always knew there was a bigger goal in mind: holding one up that read “Cross Country Conference Champion.”
The 2021 squad returned their whole team, minus their top scorer, Joshua Velasco; however, they added to the firepower and depth with two new transfers, Salvador Capetillo and Felix Perrier.
Ten months after the regionals meet, it was Nixon Korir, a junior from Kenya, who stepped up early, putting behind those feelings of heartbreak from last season. He claimed individual wins at both the 2022 Mark Covert Classic and Cougar Challenge while the team put up really strong second-place finishes in all three of their regular season meets including their finale in Riverside at the Highlander Classic.
The men were healthy and hungry to improve upon their 2021 conference performance and claim their first PacWest title in program history. With Kiprop gone to Arkansas, the FPU Sunbirds struggled to replace the talent of their frontrunner leaving the Cougars with the chance to put them away.
And sure enough, the team did as they led with dominance across almost the entirety of the race. But what took the Cougars by surprise was Biola, whose individuals snuck in and claimed first and third places before Korir and Capetillo would claim fourth and fifth. As the next few points were counted up, faces fell, hands covered mouths, and a realization struck the team that they had fallen to Biola by one single point—one point, again.
“Azusa Pacific, PacWest runner-up” was called as the team watched with envy and confusion at what had just happened. This picture had remained in their minds for months of holding that conference trophy and finally putting away those feelings of distraught, but instead, those same exact feelings submerged as the Eagles lifted their championship trophy in San Francisco.
“Gut-wrenching. My stomach dropped,” said coach Smith when looking back to that moment 12 months later.“That sounds a little too intense for a sport but I think that’s how it felt for everyone. I couldn’t even believe it in retrospect. When we were going into the last 2k, we were winning by a lot. We train pretty well to where people are strong in the last part of the race. So the fact that things fell apart was really unexpected.”
Adamant about not letting that one point narrate the rest of their season, the men, defeated once again, were not completely hopeless this time. They boarded the plane two weeks later shaking off any feelings of sadness and instead changed gears knowing they could still make program history and this time auto-qualify for the 2022 Nationals.
They put it all on the line as four of their top five runners would claim all-regional distinctions (top 30 in the field). Capetillo led with a 15th-place finish accompanied by Korir, Perrier, and Riley Burns who finished 21st, 22nd, and 23rd. Dider Sandoval would round out the scoring with 33 points to give the team 111 points, good for third place in the Region and a direct ticket to the 2022 nationals meet in Seattle.
“Those dudes were so resilient and despite losing conference in a painful way, they doubled down and kept betting on themselves. They comfortably defeated Biola en route to their national berth, which didn’t make losing conference any easier, but it validated what we believed to be true all along,” said Smith. “These men were ready to run on the national stage. They were fit and trusted themselves which is much harder to do when things start going south. They were rewarded for that trust and finally had a chance to run against the countries’ best.”
In their first-ever trip to the NCAA DII Cross Country Championships, the team finished 21st out of 34 teams. It was a showing to be more than proud of, especially considering it was their first time at the big dance; however, the team, including coach Smith were hungry for so much more.
Now back to 2023, the team once again returned everyone except their front runner, Capetillo. This time, Jared Wright, who had finished ninth in the region with his former team Dominican, and Juan Diego Castro, a DI All-American transfer from Oklahoma State University, would fuel the fire already built by the Cougars.
The team was getting better, deeper, and stronger as they headed into the 2023 cross-country season. From a team with 14 runners in 2020, before Smith took over the program, the Cougars evolved to a team of 23 where even freshmen who were redshirting this season could have been other inner-conference teams’ top runners.
The standard of excellence increased as more and more people wanted to be a part of the magic Smith was growing at APU. For example, the team that had just finished 21st at their first national meet was ranked No. 16 ahead of the 2023 season. But, to the team and Smith, it still wasn’t enough. There was much more work to be done, with the first task being a conference title.
And they were on the right track of getting just that done. Their fifth-place finish at the UCR Invite, which fielded a much deeper field than the previous year, was behind only four Division I teams as they outscored every DII and DIII school. The team traveled across the country to Louisville, Kentucky for the first time to face off against some of the best DII teams in the nation.
This was the truest testament to the strength of their team as they finished eighth overall against several nationally ranked teams at the Live in Lou Classic.
The team’s performance catapulted them to ninth in the nation and second in the West region thus sending shock waves across the PacWest Conference, the region, and the nation that the Cougars were someone to keep an eye on.
Three weeks later, they headed to Fresno into the PacWest Championships more ready than ever to finally bring the trophy home. And they did just that. By rolling through Woodward Park and maintaining that dominance all the way to the finish line in true Cougars fashion by dominating as a pack and rolling through the entire 8k race with patience and trust. Perrier finished third overall as the Cougars’ next four runners finished one after the next right behind him.
APU’s 25 total points would put them so far ahead of the next team (Biola) that if one counted the Cougars’ sixth through tenth runner, their score would still beat Biola by … get this… one point.
“It felt awesome. Not just because it’s a cool-looking trophy, but just what the trophy represented was like failing, in some regards, not losing but failing. Just missing out on something that we wanted and learning from it by not giving up,” Smith said.“It could have been really easy to just kind of feel sorry for ourselves and to have the culture get kind of toxic or we just don’t quite believe in ourselves or the program. But, they went into that one, wanting it really, really bad. They got knocked down and just went right back to work. They earned it and they really deserved it.”
After writing their name in the school history books twice in the past three years for their first NCAA Nationals meet appearance and first-ever PacWest title, there are just two more goals they have their eyes set on: A NCAA West Region title and a podium finish at the National Championship.
With faint remembrance of those moments of heartbreak but also the immense emotions of victory, the Cougars now head to Monmouth, Oregon for the NCAA West Regionals meet to race on Saturday, Nov. 4 for a chance at redemption. It’s a chance to avenge themselves after being just one point shy the last time they raced there. Two years later, they head into the meet as the No.2 ranked team in the region and tenth in the nation.
“There are valuable lessons you can learn from the past,” said Smith.” “So I think, going into [the rest of the postseason], reminding the guys, ‘hey, every point matters,’ that no matter what, when you’re racing, you’re racing that day, and whatever you’re ranked, whatever you’ve done, none of that really matters. It just matters what you do that day. So we’re going to be focused on what we have to execute and we’re going to be thinking primarily about that. But also using the past to recognize that nothing is a given.”