As far as scripts go, Azusa Pacific could not have written a better beginning to its first season as a full-fledged active member of NCAA Division II.
Last Thursday night, on its home field, against an opponent that is one of the most formidable and most successful in D II. the Cougars made a thunderous statement.
They stunned Grand Valley State, a four-time national champion and the second-ranked team in the country, 26-23 in double overtime, and star running back Terrell Watson played an instrumental role.
Watson scored two of his three touchdowns in overtime, and for he and his teammates, the victory was one they savored.
“Grand Valley is such an awesome team, and it was such a great win for us,” Watson said. “Both teams came ready to play, and we felt like if everyone did their job, we would win.”
For the Cougars, the victory goes beyond the numbers on the home and visitor side of the scoreboard.
“It validates all of the hard work that has gone into making the move from NAIA to Division II,” Azusa Pacific head coach Victor Santa Cruz said. “It speaks volumes about us being able to maintain our core values and still be successful. It’s a great feeling.”
Watson helped create the feeling. He finished his night with 42 carries for 202 yards, the fourth 200-yard game of his career.
But the latest accomplishment in a career full of them — Watson is already the program’s and the Great Northwest Athletic Conferences’ all-time leading rusher — did nothing to change his mindset.
He was humble in the wake of the win, never mind how monumental it really was, and is humble when he speaks of the reasons for his success as a college football player.
“The accomplishments I’ve had in my career are a credit to my teammates and my coaches,” Watson said. “My offensive line does a great job of opening things up for me. I wouldn’t be as successful without them.”
Watson’s rise has taken place quickly. As a freshman, he rushed for 697 yards and scored 15 touchdowns. A year later, he started every game and finished with 1,094 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Last year was his breakout year. He shredded defenses to the tune of 1,812 yards and 23 touchdowns en route to being named the GNAC Offensive Player of the Year.
Watson, a native of Los Angeles, has already broken nearly every school rushing record, including several that were once owned by former Kansas City Chiefs star Christian Okoye.
Santa Cruz is proud of Watson’s rise, not only as a player, but as a person.
“He’s overcome challenges, as have a lot of our players, and I take a lot of pride as a coach seeing him become the person that he is now,” Santa Cruz said. “We have a motto where we want to build champions while pursuing championships. Watson is an example of that. We want our guys to not only be teammates that can be relied on, but to be people their communities can rely on someday after their playing careers are over.”
Watson intends to be that kind of person. After graduation, he plans to join the police force and either be a S.W.A.T Team member or part of the Drug Enforcement Agency. However, if the opportunity to play football after college did present itself, Watson said he would go for it.
“I’ve wanted to be a cop since I was two, and that goal has never changed,” Watson said. “I love serving people. I know the chance of playing in the NFL is small, and I’d never want to just count on that and nothing else. But if I had the opportunity, I would take it.”
And seizing an opportunity is what the Cougars hope to do this year, including defending their GNAC championship. They are also excited about being eligible for the D II playoffs for the first time.
“Our guys are hungry to keep playing and they understand that they are in the national conversation because of their hard work, their sacrifice, their desire to get better each day,” Santa Cruz said. “We have lofty expectations here and we feel like if we are going to run the race, we are going to run the race to win it.”