Arizona Christian University athletics aims for success with move to Glendale

By: 
DARRELL JACKSON, Glendale Star Editor

Photo by Darrell Jackson

Former Peoria Liberty star Courtney Christmas is the career leading scorer in ACU women’s basketball history after three seasons with the Firestorm.
 

Photo courtesy of Arizona Christian University

Former Glendale Community College football player Dylan Cabellero prepares to make a tackle in the early days of ACU football.
 

Photo courtesy of Arizona Christian University

ACU basketball player Sonny Cousins takes a free throw last season in leading the men’s basketball program.
 

As Arizona Christian University prepares to take over the former Thunderbird School of Global Management as its new home, one added aspect that is expected to improve the school is getting athletic programs on campus.
“Right now, it is tough for our teams to find practice times because we don’t have the space for the teams,” ACU Athletic Director Jeff Rutter said. “For example, we currently play our home football games at Shadow Mountain High School, and we have some great partnerships, but we can get bumped pretty easily and it is a big puzzle to find the space and time for our teams.”
Rutter, who has been with ACU for seven years, the past five as AD, has overseen the growth of the athletics program from 12 to 14 teams when he started to 25 after the school adds wrestling, men’s volleyball, women’s beach volleyball and e-sports in 2018-19.
“I came from Azusa Pacific University and ACU President (Len) Munsil has a vision for ACU is to grow in size,” Rutter said. “(Munsil) wants the university to have an impact on the community and he believes athletics is a big part of that and that got me excited to come here.”
Athletics has nearly doubled in size over the past five years, with limited teams having playing and practice space on their present campus (2625 E. Cactus Road).
Rutter said the goal is to have every team on campus when the school moves to Glendale in the fall 2019.
“The plan is to have all sports on campus in the fall of 2019,” Rutter said. “We will have a softball and baseball fields, turf field for soccer and football to practice on and tennis courts.”
He added that is just the beginning for the athletics program in Glendale.
“Hopefully, quickly after that, we are planning for an arena and football stadium in the near future,” Rutter said. “While we have had success with a lot of our teams, all the expansion and having them on campus, will only make things better.”

Firestorm rising
ACU teams, nicknamed the Firestorm, are part of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), primarily competing in the Golden State Athletic Conference (GSAC). Certain sports are also played in the National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA).
Currently, men’s sports include baseball, basketball, cross country, golf, soccer, tennis, track and field and football; while women’s sports include acrobatics and tumbling, basketball, cross country, golf, soccer, softball, swimming, tennis, track and field and volleyball.
“Early on, the search for coaches was tough on the university,” Rutter said. “When I got here, even with approximately 12 programs, it was tough to get strong coaches to come here, but that has changed.”
The first team was the 2007-08 men’s soccer team, which finished 1-10 in its inaugural season, losing its first six games before its first victory against Southwestern (OK) Christian University.
Months after Rutter took over five years ago, it was announced the Firestorm was going to start a football program and he was in charge of helping build the program.
“When I was hired, the next month we began our football search for a coach and we did it pretty quickly with some great success,” Rutter said.
His first hire was Donnie Yantis, former Paradise Valley football coach, who helped build the program in the first two seasons. After Yantis took a job with Arizona State University, Rutter promoted Jeff Bowen, current head coach.
The football team won the Central States Football League championship in 2015 and again in 2016, before joining the Golden State Athletic Conference last season.
Among the biggest successes in the program have been men’s basketball, football, and tennis which have advanced to postseason play.
“Men’s basketball has had a couple of sweet 16 appearances and our tennis program consistently gets to the national tournament, and football has been a tremendous accomplishment with a couple conference titles and being on the national picture consistently,” Rutter said. “We expect to do well in our leagues and the benchmark is when we get to the national playoffs and advance.”

West Valley recruiting
Rutter pointed to the university and the success it has had in recruiting in state and believes the West Valley is a great place to start.
“We certainly want to embrace where we are and, while we have gotten some great kids from around the country, we want to own Arizona and the West Valley,” Rutter said. “There are some great coaches in the Valley and I like to recruit programs and there are some amazing programs here in the West Valley.”
Among some of the athletes the Firestorm has recruited in the West Valley are women’s basketball players Courtney Christmas and Makayla Edwards (Peoria Liberty High School); women’s cross country, Zuri Vasquez (Peoria Centennial); women’s soccer, Mikaela Burley Elena Nicola (Peoria Sunrise Mountain). Analicia Rodriguez (Glendale Ironwood) and Braxton Carhart (Glendale Mountain Ridge) have had success at ACU.
Christmas was named second team NAIA All-American and ALL-GSAC in helping the Firestorm qualify for the NAIA Division I national tournament for the first time in school history in 2017-18 and is the all-time leading scorer in ACU history already with 1,572 heading into this season.
Men’s basketball players KeyVaugh Williams (Glendale Deer Valley) and Geoff Hibbitt (Ironwood); football players Mahal Lee (Cactus), Austin Schleier (Centennial) and Grant Wojnarowski (Ironwood) are helping continue to build the programs into one of the top in the conference.
Rutter said ACU has been one of the top universities in Arizona to offer scholarships and believes such rivalries with Ottawa University in Surprise as key to their growth.
“The rivalry is great and it helps a lot because when I came here, the big challenge was that not a lot of people know about the level of play, just because they haven’t seen us,” Rutter said. “Not sure of actual numbers, but I believe we are one of the top universities that offer scholarship money to kids in the state and we always want to win Arizona when it comes to recruiting.”

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