By: Mason Nesbitt, Sports Information Director
One of Zach Schroeder’s greatest strengths as The Master’s University’s men’s and women’s cross country coach is his ability to map out an athlete’s season in advance and then adjust on the fly, fine-tuning workouts so the runner performs best in the season’s biggest moments.
Those skills will be put to the test in 2020. More than ever, the Mustangs don’t know exactly what to expect during a season that will begin this month and won’t ultimately end until April.
For his part, Schroeder believes the schedule alterations caused by the coronavirus will work in TMU’s favor.
There have been seasons, Schroeder said, when the Mustangs have tailored everything toward winning a Golden State Athletic Conference title, spending everything in the championship race before having to ramp up again in time for NAIA nationals a few weeks later.
This season, the GSAC Championships are scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 7. The NAIA national championship is set for Friday, April 9.
That means the Mustang men can singly focus on preparing to chase an 11th straight conference title this fall. And TMU’s women can contend for their first crown since 2017 without holding anything back.
“Now, we know this is going to be the championship race for the fall,” Schroeder said, “and we’re not trying to save something for the next race. Your focus is heightened.”
The challenge will come in the spring when the Mustangs have to navigate a track and field schedule while remaining ready for cross country nationals. But for now, Master’s is living in the moment.
“I really sense that our group is very dialed in on what they have to do throughout this season,” Schroeder said. “They’re executing very well on the things that rest on their shoulders.”
The Mustangs will open the season Saturday at The Master’s University XC Invitational before moving on to the latter stages of a fall schedule that totals five events. The GSAC championship in Rocklin, Calif. in November is the centerpiece.
For the men, it’s an opportunity to build on a decade of dominance. The Mustangs have won every GSAC title since 2010, with Schroeder earning conference Coach of the Year honors each season.
This year’s title chase will come without NAIA All-American Stephen Pacheco and a handful of other key contributors, meaning the Mustangs likely won’t be as deep as they’ve been in recent years. But Schroeder believes Master’s remains more than capable of winning the conference and contending for a top-10 position at nationals — and with good reason.
Senior Wes Methum has established himself as a strong leader and the team’s top runner. Brint Laubach is coming off a breakout debut when he became the first freshman NAIA All-American in program history. And Davis Boggess, a junior, has progressed each season at TMU.
Freshman Zach Garey and sophomore Josh Duarte are also expected to score for the Mustangs, with sophomore Daniel Rush making a gradually larger impact as the season progresses.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if these guys proportionately finish better than last year at nationals just based on the resolve and the togetherness I’m seeing from them right now,” Schroeder said. “I think they’re creating an expectation that they want to be a frontrunner in the nation come April.”
Schroeder also believes his women’s team has the pieces to advance to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in April. The Mustangs, he said, possess more depth than any women’s team he’s fielded in the past 15 years, bolstered by the strongest recruiting class in that span.
“With a squad of 14 girls, I believe we can finish within the top 10 at NAIA nationals,” Schroeder said. “We return all of last year’s scorers, and we brought in four athlete who could score within our top five.”
Most notably, the Mustangs return their No. 1 runner, junior Arianna Ghiorso, who finished third at GSAC finals for the second year in a row in 2019 before making her second trip to nationals.
However, she made the journey alone. This year, Schroeder believes TMU has the supporting cast to challenge for a GSAC title and a collective showing at nationals — forecasts strengthened by a pair of soccer players.
After COVID-19 pushed TMU’s women’s soccer season to the spring, Elizabeth Radmilovich, who competed in soccer and track as a freshman in 2019, caught on with the cross country team.
Schroeder expects her to be one of his top-five runners, along with Mariah Hildebrandt, a former TMU women’s soccer player.
Freshman Ellen Palmgren is another name likely to show up in TMU’s top five, along with sophomore Sophie Southerden. Brooke Milam, Kimberly Page and Mariah Briceno are other runners to keep an eye on.
“It could be a very, very exciting year for cross country at The Master’s University,” Schroeder said. “I’m really looking forward to it.”