The Great Northwest Athletic Conference released its 2013 football preseason coaches' poll Wednesday, and Azusa Pacific was picked for third place by coaches of the six-team NCAA Division II football conference.
Humboldt State was picked as the favorite to win the conference, registering three of the six first-place votes. Defending GNAC champion Central Washington collected two first-place votes and is picked second in the poll, while Azusa Pacific was tied for third place with Western Oregon, which received the remaining first-place vote. Simon Fraser and Dixie State finished fifth and sixth in the poll, respectively.
Last season, in its first season of GNAC membership, Azusa Pacific finished in a tie for fourth place with a 4-6 conference record in the program’s first-ever season competing within a football conference.
“We’re still getting used to the idea of a league poll after competing for so long as an independent,” said Azusa Pacific head coach Victor Santa Cruz. “While it’s nice to see that our peers within the GNAC view us as a program that’s trending upwards, we understand that the last poll of the year is the one that matters. As a program, we’re going to strive to be number one when all is said and done.”
The Cougars finished the year on a four-game winning streak that started against eventual conference champion Central Washington. They backed up that win with a victory over Western Oregon, making it two consecutive weeks that the Cougars knocked the GNAC leader out of first place in the conference standings. The Cougars wrapped up the season with two more wins, beating Dixie State on the road before finishing at home with a victory over Simon Fraser.
“We found out last year how good every team in this league is. From top to bottom, the GNAC has great coaching and a lot of talented athletes, and we have a great deal of respect for that,” said Santa Cruz. “Every game in the GNAC is a battle, and it brings a sense of purpose and accomplishment with every practice as we prepare to compete in this great league.”
Santa Cruz returned 42 letter winners from the Cougars’ 2012 campaign, including seven offensive and seven defensive starters from a last year. Among the returnees on offense are a pair of all-GNAC recipients in junior running back Terrell Watson and senior tight end Kevin Schick. Watson ranked second in the conference for rushing yards per game (99.5).
On the defensive side, both of Azusa Pacific’s leading tacklers, senior linebacker Sean Barber (86 tackles) and junior defensive back Tyler Thornton (85 tackles), return in 2013 after earning All-GNAC honors last season. Senior linebacker Jake Henderson was the Cougars’ leader in tackles for loss (6.5) and finished fourth on the team in tackles (65), joins Barber at the heart of an experienced defense that returns seven starters.
Thornton is also slated for kick return duties after tallying 661 yards on kick and punt returns in 2012. Sophomore kicker Jamie Cacciatore converted a GNAC-best 15 field goals last year and ranked second in the conference in field goal percentage (.714).
Azusa Pacific opens its season on the road with a non-conference matchup at Grand Valley State (Mich.) on Saturday, Sept. 7, before kicking off the 10-game GNAC schedule with a Sept. 14 visit to Dixie State. The Cougars host GNAC preseason favorite Humboldt State on Saturday, Sept. 21 in the home-opener at Citrus Stadium.