In a day and age when the level of competition in collegiate athletics requires specialized skill sets, Azusa Pacific remains home to a host of dual-sport athletes.
Perhaps the most popular combination of sports is football and track and field. Joining the ranks of Christian Okoye are four crossover athletes: junior running back Ronald Douglas, sophomore defensive lineman Talaiasi Taueli and sophomore wide receivers Tanner Henry and Cory Crawford.
“One of my foundational things is if you want to be a better athlete, you have to do athletic things. Even though it’s not really sport-specific, in the fall or the spring depending what season they’re in, they’re still out there doing things,” men’s track and field head coach Kevin Reid said.
In some cases, such as with Taueli, athletes are recruited out of high school for both sports. However, in the cases of Henry and Douglas, the two did not know prior to entering the football program that they would also compete in track and field.
Henry joined the roster as a hurdler at the end of his freshman football season and Douglas played two years of football before joining the program as a short-distance sprinter.
The two joke about the difficulty of the transition from football to track season and the smoother move back into football.
“The transition is terrible from football. You think you’re in shape in football, then you come to track and you have all these workouts and all these sprints,” Douglas said. “You’re in much better shape than probably most football players on the team when you come back.”
With backgrounds as combination football and track and field athletes at APU, Reid and director of track and field Mike Barnett both have firsthand experience with the dynamics of being a dual-sport athlete.
Baseball head coach Paul Svagdis has a similar privilege with a background as a four-year starter in football and baseball at Tufts University, enabling him to relate to players like freshman tight end and redshirt first baseman/pitcher Matthew Orzech.
“The physicality of football was something that I enjoyed, and I liked the camaraderie of being a teammate,” Svagdis said. “It’s hard to go out there and knock each other around a little bit. It’s kind of a test of how tough you are physically.”
The former two-sport college athlete noted the difficulty of baseball as a mental game and how that ultimately lends itself to a player’s performance in another sport.
“We’re hoping that when Matt leaves baseball at the end of the spring he’s learned a little bit about mental development and how to grow cognitively as a baseball player, how to be mentally tough, how to protect your mental environment and be focused. Not only visually focused, but emotionally focused during highs and lows of games,” Svagdis said. “I’m hoping that will play out for him in the fourth quarter running down the field trying to catch a pass.”
Like many dual-sport athletes, Orzech competed in both sports in high school, allowing him to develop a familiarity playing both sports prior to arriving at APU.
“I get stronger from football and my arm gets to rest, so I throw harder every time I come back out,” Orzech said. “For football, reaction and speed increases during baseball season.”
Darryl Miller is a second combination baseball and football athlete who is redshirting in both sports for the 2013-14 season.
Each individual composing the roster of dual-sport athletes at APU has ties with the football program.
“Our football program is open to the opportunity for them to do multi-sports,” football head coach Victor Santa Cruz said. “Nowadays, it’s so much more rare, so when someone like a track athlete has a chance to run track, that’s giving him a complete outlet for all of his athleticism to be used.”
According to Santa Cruz, each dual-sport athlete recruited by the football program and other APU athletic programs is identified as a multi-sport athlete at his high school. Santa Cruz attributes the success of this recruiting process to communication between whichever two programs are involved.
“Every roster spot is precious in college,” Santa Cruz said. “When we talk as coaches, the big question is: ‘Hey, are they an impact for you? Are they effective for you?’ Because if they’re not, it would be in their best interest to be concentrated on one sport.”
In this transitional period into full NCAA Division II membership, Santa Cruz recognizes the high level of specialized training that athletes are equipped with and that these combination athletes are missing out on the benefits of the offseason a one-sport athlete would typically have.
“I don’t think it’s a perfect situation. You just have to have an individual who is a high-capacity individual mentally as well as athletically,” Santa Cruz said. “I think for that high-capacity athlete, it helps because he’s learning to compete in a whole other arena. The cultures are placing different demands on him to draw out different mental skill sets and mental capacities. One sport can’t necessarily give him all that. There’s a real value in that.”
Santa Cruz and Reid both note that dual-sport athletes at the college level are becoming more of a rarity.
“There’s such an age of specialization, and I think that’s even happening before they get to us. That’s happening in high school and even prior to high school,” Reid said. “It’s kind of the culture of sport that’s out there right now.”
Despite this age of specialization, however, 2014 football commit Jalen Wyatt will also compete in track and field, joining the ranks of dual-sport athletes at Azusa Pacific.