Crusaders race to the top of the GNAC (#GoNNUCrusaders)

Last Updated 24 October, 2014

When John Spatz stepped onto Northwest Nazarene University’s campus back in the fall of 2003, he took over a young Crusader Track & Field program that had seen success at the NAIA level but now faced the challenges of competing in the NCAA and for Great Northwest Athletic Conference Championships.

Twelve years later, Crusader Track & Field is one of the elite athletic programs both at NNU and in the GNAC. The Crusaders have claimed eight individual GNAC championships in 2014, 39 Crusader student-athletes have earned All-GNAC honors in indoor or outdoor track & field, 21 have earned Academic All-GNAC honors, and the Crusaders have competed in six events at the NCAA Division 2 national meets.

“It’s taken time to grow and to become a recognized name,” said Spatz, who credits a consistent and talented coaching staff for part of NNU’s success.

The success of former Crusader student-athletes like two-time NCAA Division 2 National Champion Ashley Puga, who won the 2009 title in the 800 meters both indoors and outdoors, NCAA Division 2 All-Americans Emily Peterson (2006, high jump), Josh Heidegger (2009, javelin) and Dallas Beaty (2009, 400 hurdles) has also helped propel the Crusaders toward the GNAC summit. 

“The quality [of these former team members] has continued to help us recruit quality student-athletes,” Spatz said of the program’s growth. “That’s expedited the success of the program.”

Success has also contributed to the growing numbers of the team, which ballooned from 53 student-athletes in 2003 to what Spatz admits was an almost unmanageable team roster of 85 to 90 in the 2007-09 season. In 2014, the Crusader roster checks in at 63 student-athletes.

In terms of athletic achievement, the growth has been remarkable. In 2003, the Crusaders claimed four All-GNAC outdoor track & field honors and one GNAC title as Zach Dwello won in men’s steeplechase. In 2014, the Crusader women’s track & field team entered the final event of the GNAC Outdoor Championships racing for the team title, settling for a program-best runner-up championship finish.

In addition, NNU has hosted all 11 years of Indoor Championship meets since the championship’s inception in 2004. This is yet another sign of the program’s growing prominence.

“The Lord has just blessed us with a lot of resources and support; the credit really goes to Him with the athletes we attract,” Spatz said. “I’m very proud of the process; I like building things,” he added as he prepares for season 13 leading NNU’s track & field and cross-country programs. “I like seeing things improve. The work of the assistant coaches and the student-athletes—they’ve just poured everything they have into the program, and that’s the reason for our success.”

Keep up with the latest on Crusader Track & Field and Cross Country at

Learn more about special reunion events for track & field and cross country alumni and coaches at Homecoming & Family Weekend 2014.