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Azusa Has New Arena, Championship Feeling

It still glistens, and Bill Odell and his players still beam when they look around at the structure.

Azusa Pacific has a sparkling new $14-million arena and the men’s basketball team has christened it in grand style. At 30-2, the Cougars are the winningest team in the country, on any level, and may be the one to hang the first National Assn. of Intercollegiate Athletics championship banner in the facility.

Odell is savoring this season. The team may be the best he has coached in 10 successful years and probably his personal favorite. Azusa is ranked third in the NAIA poll and recently clinched its ninth consecutive Golden State Athletic Conference title.

But, first, about the arena . . .

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“I didn’t think it’d be something like this,” Odell, also the school’s athletic director, said of the 3,700-seat Felix Event Center. “It’s a little above what I anticipated.”

The coach could also say that about this season. Even with 11 new players, the Cougars quickly meshed into a smooth unit. Even playing against top NAIA teams Biola and Christian Heritage, Azusa won the GSAC title by four games.

“We’ve got guys who don’t want to lose,” Odell said. “Sometimes we beat teams with our finesse and depth. At the same time, we’ve won games just on good work ethic.”

Balance and depth are Azusa’s defining traits. The Cougars have seven players averaging 8.9 to 14.8 points.

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It is something senior center Justin Leslie believes will be a clear edge when the 32-team NAIA tournament begins March 14. Azusa has already qualified but it first must play in the GSAC tournament this weekend.

“We’ve got 10 guys we can go to,” Leslie said. “There’s no one that you can just key on. Depth plays a factor but this team also has got a lot of pride.

“We’ve just got a great group of guys. I think in previous years, we had some cliques. This team isn’t like that. Nobody cares about being a stat leader.”

Odell has seven tuition scholarships to give but says that number is below the national level. Still, he attracts top talent.

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Sophomore guard Caleb Gervin originally signed with Louisville after coming out of Cathedral City as the fourth-leading prep scorer in Southern Section history.

Gervin, a nephew of NBA Hall of Famer George Gervin, returned to the area after not getting much playing time. But he doesn’t regret the experience or his decision to go down a few levels.

“Getting away from Palm Springs was the best thing for me,” he said. “I learned a lot about surviving on my own. Now that I’m back home, I’ve matured a lot.

“I looked at a few other Division I schools. But I really wanted to play for three years. I didn’t want to sit out anymore.”

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Another key addition was freshman guard Brett Michel. He left Simi Valley High as Ventura County’s third-leading all-time scorer, but got few offers from Division I schools.

After considering some Division II offers and junior college possibilities, Michel visited the small university after getting a call from assistant coach Ken Ammann.

“He heard I was unsigned and he told me to come and check out [the university],” Michel said. “I knew [Azusa teammate] Jeff Staniland from high school and gave him a call. He’s had some good experiences here and told me it was real nice.”

Michel, who averages 8.9 points, adds another shooter to the prolific Cougar lineup. He has made 61 of Azusa’s 278 three-pointers.

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“It’s exactly what I’ve wanted,” he said of the school.

Odell, 58, has won 274 games at Azusa. He won 402 on the high school level, first at Covina Northview and then at Long Beach Millikan.

He has passed on coaching offers from Division I universities, preferring to call Azusa home. Adding an NAIA title would be nice, but not necessary.

“It isn’t a life-long goal for me,” Odell said. “I remember when I won the CIF championship at Millikan, people asked me if I was going to quit. I was almost insulted by that question.

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“I don’t equate winning a championship with being successful. If we don’t win, I don’t dwell on it.”

The players, on the other hand, believe the time is now.

“I want to make something happen on the national level,” Leslie said. “When I was a sophomore, we blew a lead in the semifinals against Life [University of Marietta, Ga.] and they ended up winning it.

“I feel it’s my job to get these guys to look toward that.”

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Claremont-Mudd-Scripps won its first Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference women’s basketball title in five years when it defeated second-place Whittier, 69-61, in overtime last Wednesday at Claremont.

The Athenas (19-6) earned the conference’s automatic berth into the NCAA Division III tournament and will play St. Thomas of Minnesota in the first round tonight at St. Paul, Minn. It is the fifth SCIAC title for 22-year Coach Jodie Burton.

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Cal State Dominguez Hills’s 2-1 victory over Albertson College gave baseball Coach George Wing his 300th victory and made him the school’s winningest coach. Wing, in his 13th season, surpassed Robert Bafia, who won 299 games between 1973-82.

UNIVERSITY DIVISION

UCLA finished second behind Arizona and USC took third at the Pacific 10 Conference women’s swimming championships last weekend at Federal Way, Wash.

Freshman Sara Platzer and senior Beth Goodwin had second-place finishes in the 100 freestyle and 200 butterfly, respectively, to lead the Bruins.

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Junior diver Kellie Brennan won the one- and three-meter springboard events for the Trojans. Sophomore Michala Kwasny and senior Corrie Murphy finished 1-2 in the 400-meter intermediate medley.

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Christina Tolson and Tracy O’Hara of the UCLA women’s track and field team had automatic NCAA qualifying marks at the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Championships in Flagstaff, Ariz.

Tolson won the shotput and weight throw with qualifying marks of 54-1 3/4 and 64-7 1/4. O’Hara won in the pole vault at 14-1 3/4. The two will compete in the U.S. Track and Field Indoor Championships this weekend, along with Bruin throwers Cari Soong, Jessica Cosby, Chaniqua Ross, Scott Moser and Dan Ames.

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