By Mason Nesbitt, TMU Sports Information Director
The Master’s University men’s cross country team felt the sting of Friday’s lower-than-expected finish at NAIA nationals. But the Mustangs also turned an eye to a promising 2019, when all seven of its top athletes are expected to return for a run at a 10th straight conference title.
Master’s came in 20th place at Seminole Valley Park in Cedar Rapids, Iowa – far behind the podium finish it envisioned at the beginning of the season.
This, it turns out, was the first obstacle Master’s wasn’t able to overcome during an inspiring 2018 campaign. TMU lost two head-to-head matchups against rival Westmont College during the season but rebounded to beat the Warriors at the Golden State Athletic Conference Championships in November. It was the Mustangs’ ninth straight conference crown and coach Zach Schroeder’s ninth straight GSAC Coach of the Year honor.
Even then, the team didn’t feel it had peaked. The program’s first-ever top-four finish, the group felt, was well within reach.
Instead, the 10th-ranked Mustangs endured their lowest finish since at least 2012, which, in context, still speaks to the program’s consistency.
Master’s has appeared as a team at NAIA nationals every year since 2009 – and 12 times in the last 14 seasons.
The Mustangs, however, hope 2019 will provide a better finish. And they should have the pieces to make that a reality. Stephen Pacheco, who finished a team-best 88th place Friday (25 minutes, 37.3 seconds), and Wesley Methum, who followed in 120th place, are expected to once again lead the group.
“Super exciting,” Pacheco said of returning the entire roster. “Our team is so knit together.”
Schroeder has said this was one of his closest teams, relationally. Pacheco says that was, in part, because the team was so committed to praying with and for each other.
Regularly after practice, the group would gather on TMU’s athletic field and pray for each other’s needs athletically, socially and spiritually.
“We all shared our problems and issues with each other,” Pacheco said, “and that made us a lot stronger.”
The Mustangs hope to foster similar closeness in terms of their training. This year, with such a young club, Master’s athletes had varying levels of fitness. That made running together at practice – and at meets – difficult.
“Next season we want to be running as a pack,” Pacheco said. “This season there was a big spread. Our goal for next season is to be as close together as possible, be close enough that we can be talking to each other and telling each other to push on.”
Maybe the one Mustang who impressed his teammates Friday was Tim Gutierrez, a junior who served as TMU’s fourth finisher. He ran the 8K in a career best 26:05.8.
“Tim had a really, really great race,” Methum said.
Otherwise, Methum didn’t feel the Mustangs had performed particularly well as a group or individually. He agreed with Pacheco that a focus heading into 2019 would be continuing to build a “brotherhood.” Several of the Mustangs are planning to live together in Flagstaff, Arizona, (where freshman Davis Boggess hails from) this summer so they can train as a group, Pacheco said.
“We want to be fully committed to each other and to the sport,” Methum said, “and that will make the difference.”