After winning back-to-back GNAC crowns, Azusa Pacific football had similar hopes for this season.
The Cougars began the season in Canyon, Texas, taking on perennial Division II powerhouse West Texas A&M. The Cougars won 27-24, beginning the year with an out-of-conference win.
The season quickly turned, however, as the Cougars lost a nonconference game to GNAC foe Humboldt State, 62-41 at home.
They followed the loss with two wins; 16-10 against Simon Fraser, and 34-5 against Dixie State. The Cougars lost conference games to Humboldt State on the road, along with enduring a heartbreaking finish against Central Washington, where freshman running back Kurt Scoby was taken down at the one-yard line after running 77 yards on the game’s last play.
The Cougars produced a 56-27 win against the South Dakota Mines for Homecoming, and won two of their last three from that point, finishing at 6-4.
APU finished the year at home by drubbing Simon Fraser 38-17, highlighted by wide receiver Blake Robertson throwing a touchdown pass in the third quarter on a trick play.
Sophomore quarterbacks Chad Jeffries and Andrew Elffers split time throughout the year. Jeffries led the team in passing this season with 1,473 yards and seven touchdowns through the air. Jeffries also had 449 yards and four touchdowns rushing. Elffers threw for 648 yards and for six touchdowns, and rushed for 483 yards and another six touchdowns.
Junior defensive back Jonathan Thropay felt that Andrew Elffers was a particularly helpful asset to the team this season.
“Andrew Elffers [is] more of a running-style quarterback,” Thropay said. “I feel like he’s able to avoid the rush a little bit more and [is able to] see little gaps in the defensive line; [he’s able to] just take off and get some yardage.”
The Cougar’s brightest offensive star was freshman running back Kurt Scoby. Scoby rushed for 1,108 yards and 11 TDs throughout the season. Scoby’s performance this year gave APU a 1,000-yard rusher for a fifth consecutive season.
Thropay thought the team had a solid season, but admitted he had hoped for different results.
“I thought we would go undefeated and make playoffs,” he said. “But I think our whole team grew, [especially the] underclassmen, knowing that we have to work to produce what we got in the last few years.”
The team began the 2015 season with roughly 65 new players and 60 returning players. The new faces on the roster put the Cougars through some growing pains, and the team focused on getting the new players into its system.
“This is one of the most talented rosters we’ve had,” head coach Victor Santa Cruz said. “ But, having a talented roster, football is a team sport, so it took [the new players] a while to be able to learn our systems, learn what veterans learn.”
In order to ensure that newer players transitioned in smoothly, coaches met with players individually. They worked with the players during their study hours, and hosted Bible studies to help players explore their faith and better understand what it means to be an APU college student and athlete.
“[Coaches will do] a lot of individual drills, too, [to help the newcomers] fit the system,” Thropay said. “Just [in] every aspect, coaches are giving those newer guys extra time, and you can just tell.”
During spring practices, Santa Cruz plans to focus on developing younger players.
“Our goal in the off-season is to develop these guys, and go into the next fall with a better understanding [of the game],” Santa Cruz said. “[We want] to play fast, and come out right away with a real purpose and intention to be the best in the country.”
Senior offensive linemen Jacob Thomas believes the extra time the coaches have been investing in the newcomers has paid off.
“[The new players] are very talented, and they really caught on quick,” Thomas said. “They meshed really well with the returners.”
Despite losing a few key players, Thropay said that the team’s coaches did a good job recruiting the positions that needed to be filled.
“I think we are heading in the right direction,” Thropay said. “We got a bright future for next year, if we can just keep our heads up and keep rolling, regardless of how this season ends.”
The Cougars will begin their 2016 campaign at home against West Texas A&M on Sept. 1. Azusa Pacific will also play against Colorado School of Mines and Colorado Mesa; this is the first time the Cougars have had three non-GNAC opponents scheduled for nonconference games since joining Division II.