By Mason Nesbitt, TMU Sports Information Director
As close as last year’s championship race was, the Mustangs’ breathtaking string of titles might never have felt more precarious than Saturday at Central Park.
Master’s entered the day’s GSAC Championships as the eight-time defending champion, yes. But it also came in as a legitimate underdog, having lost to Westmont head-to-head twice earlier in the year.
It didn’t matter. The Mustangs received clutch performances from their three, four and five runners to outlast Westmont 41-50 and earn an automatic bid to NAIA nationals later this month.
“We knew Westmont had beaten us twice,” said junior Stephen Pacheco, “but I think with the experience we’ve had winning so many times, we are always able to pull through when it really matters.”
Pacheco finished first for the Mustangs, and third overall, with a time of 25 minutes, 46.6 seconds. The day didn’t go tightly according to script. TMU had hoped that Pacheco and sophomore Wesley Methum would finish 2-3 and neutralize Westmont’s lead man, Michael Oldach, who won the 8K race in 25:25.3.
Methum finished a solid fourth, at 26:01.5, keeping the Mustangs within striking distance and opening the door for unsung teammates to secure the title.
It wasn’t unlike last season’s 37-38 win over Westmont at finals, when Alec Franco’s 13th-place finish made the difference.
This time it was harder to pick a hero between Josh Nunez (seventh place), Davis Boggess (12th) and Justin Harris (15th), all five Mustangs finishing before Westmont’s No. 4.
“If I had to tip my hat to one of those guys, it’d be Justin Harris,” said coach Zach Schroeder. “He was the linchpin of our squad.”
Said Pacheco, “I believed in my team. I had confidence they’d come through.”
TMU received a shot of confidence at a meet in Northern California on Oct. 20. Westmont had beaten the Mustangs by 45 points a month earlier at TMU’s home meet, and instead of licking its wounds, Master’s responded with sharper, more intense practices.
At the October meet, the Mustangs closed to within three points of Westmont.
“It got us all pumped and ready for today,” Pacheco said. “Losing to them actually helped us and motivated us to train harder.”
It provided a wake-up call that this was no sure thing.
“That added a greater sense of, ‘Are we going to be able to pull this off,'” said Schroeder, who was named GSAC men’s cross country Coach of the Year after the meet for the ninth straight season. “But the guys really rose to the occasion.”