Azusa Pacific University will travel a long way to open its men's basketball season.
About 4,000 miles.
The Cougars will represent the United States in the annual Copa de las Americas (Cup of the Americas) international tournament Nov. 6-11 in Puerto Rico.
The eight-team tournament, which will also include five teams from Puerto Rico and teams from Belgium and Brazil, will be played in Rio Piedras, Mayaguez and Arecibo.
Azusa Pacific, a member of the National Assn. of Intercollegiate Athletics, will play the University of Brussels in its opener Monday, then will play Mayaguez Tuesday and Arecibo Nov. 8 in pool play.
Tournament officials have always invited an NAIA team to represent the United States, but Azusa Pacific is the first school from the West Coast to be selected.
"They asked for a top 10 (NAIA) team and we're not a top 10 team but most of the top teams on the East Coast start their season earlier and couldn't fit it into their schedule," Coach Terry Layton said.
Elon of North Carolina, an NAIA power, won the tournament last year. Azusa Pacific struggled to a 12-19 record in Layton's first year as coach last season.
Layton says his team was invited because of his association with Steve Veal, the NAIA director of championships who is also the NAIA liaison to international basketball. Layton is also on the national games committee.
"(Veal) knew I spoke fluent Spanish and when he found out they had an opening in the tournament, he asked me when our season opener was and he said he might have an opening for us," Layton said.
Although the trip to Puerto Rico will be a first for the rest of the team, Layton is no stranger to the Caribbean island. Two summers ago, he coached the Isabela squad in the 16-team Puerto Rican professional league that includes a few National Basketball Assn. players and coaches.
Over the last 20 years, he has also coached internationally in 26 nations, among them Guatemala, Venezuela and Japan.
The coach said that each of the Azusa players contributed $150 toward the trip and the school raised most of the rest of the money necessary to play in the tournament.
Although the emphasis during the trip will be on basketball, Layton said he is hoping it will be important to the team from a broader perspective.
"We're going to try to make it as educational as possible," he said. "We'd like to win the games but that's not the important thing."
Layton has scheduled side trips to the world's largest radio telescope in Arecibo and to a fort, and the team will also give two basketball clinics.
The players will not forsake their schoolwork while they are in Puerto Rico, either. The Cougars will take two hours a day for study hall and hope to use the computer system at the University of Rio Piedras to transmit their homework. During the trip, they'll be based at the school's hotel near the campus.
Not to leave out their fans back home, Layton said, a videotape of the team's tournament opener against Brussels will be flown back for a showing next Wednesday at the Azusa Pacific student union.
"We want to share this experience with our students as much as possible," Layton said. "We think (the videotape) will give our students a taste of international basketball."
But the basketball team figures to benefit the most from the experience.
Layton said that using international rules will be a challenge for his team.
"It is difficult, but it is a good kind of difficult," Layton said. "You can play good international teams and not have it count against your record. The international game is also different to play and that's a good experience. Being from the West Coast, we don't have an opportunity to travel internationally much."
Layton said that the trip should also help develop team camaraderie for the rest of the season.
"I think that's a real big factor," he said. "I think it can't help but help us down the line. When you're together overseas and you're living in the same rooms and traveling on the bus together, you really get a chance to know all the guys. There's nothing like a trip like this to get a team closer."
The Occidental football team, which appeared to have the best opportunity of any college division team in the Southland of advancing to postseason play, might have lost that chance by losing to Whittier in a Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference game Saturday.
It was a Whittier team that had been struggling with a 1-5 record, but the Poets defeated the Tigers, 26-16. The Poets were led by running back Ryan Rowlands, who rushed for 124 yards and a touchdown.
The loss dropped Occidental to 5-2 overall.
The result was also surprising, considering Occidental's impressive wins over the University of San Diego and Claremont-Mudd the previous two weeks. The Tigers had been ranked No. 5 in the West among National Collegiate Athletic Assn. Division III teams but figure to drop considerably.
Now Occidental will have to set its sights a little lower. The Tigers will play host to Redlands, 4-3 overall and unbeaten in the SCIAC, Saturday night in quest of at least a share of their third consecutive conference title.
There is also a return encounter against Whittier on Nov. 11 at Occidental.
The most impressive college division football team this season may be UC Santa Barbara, which will take a five-game winning streak into its game against Menlo on Saturday.
Santa Barbara, an NCAA Division III independent with a 6-2 record, scored its biggest win of the season last Saturday, a 51-3 rout of the University of San Diego.
San Diego had been 6-1, having suffered its only previous loss to Occidental.
College Division Notes
The Cal State San Bernardino women's volleyball team is hoping to earn a berth in the NCAA Division III playoffs when the teams are announced later in the week. The Coyotes, who have a 22-8 record, have been led by junior middle blocker Tinette Vaillancourt, who was named most valuable player of the Occidental tournament last week. Vaillancourt is among the Division III leaders in blocks per game and kill percentage.