SANTA BARBARA — As she positioned herself at the starting line for Saturday’s 800 meters, Arianna Ghiorso (pictured above) was brimming with confidence. And why shouldn’t she be?
The Master’s University freshman had already secured the Golden State Athletic Conference title in the 1,500 meters, and she entered her second final of the day holding the conference’s best 800 time of the season.
But after one lap, Ghiorso remained in second place and doubt began to surface. As she leaned into the race’s penultimate curve, she looked and saw head coach Zach Schroeder, which jogged her memory.
“Before the race, he talked about flipping that switch. He said, ‘You’re making the decision whether you win today because you’re capable,'” Ghiorso said. “I was like, ‘I don’t care how I feel. I’m going to go for it.'”
Ghiorso surged to victory, winning the first 800 title in the history of TMU women’s track.
It was one of several Mustang highlights on Saturday, the second day of the GSAC Championships in Santa Barbara.
Sophomore Seanna Nalbandyan won her second title in the 400 hurdles in as many years, the first GSAC women’s hurdler to repeat in the event in the last five years.
Nalbandyan, a sophomore, finished in 1 minute, 2.19 seconds — .59 seconds ahead of rival Emily Parks, a Westmont junior who nearly overtook Nalbandyan in the final moments of last year’s championship here.
Both athletes finished as NAIA All-Americans last May, but after Parks finished third in the national final to Nalbandyan’s seventh-place mark, there was no scenario in which Nalbandyan was going to lay off the gas Saturday.
“I knew I had competition this time,” Nalbandyan said. “Last year I didn’t know there was anyone that close to me. I didn’t take it easy, but I underestimated her. This year, I knew I had to get out harder and once I started getting tired to keep pushing and not settle.”
The day’s most exciting race came in the men’s 5,000.
Last season, Stephen Pacheco ran a precise, tactical race to upset Westmont’s Michael Oldach, one of the best long-distance runners in the country.
Pacheco knew he had to be equally strategic this time.
With roughly 200 meters to go, Pacheco passed Oldach on the inside in a dead sprint, a move that Pacheco believes caught his opponent by surprise. Pacheco held the lead into the homestretch before Oldach’s leg speed caught him, the NAIA All-American pulling across the finish line in first place.
It was the first time since 2014 that a Mustang didn’t win the men’s 5K, but you’d never have known Pacheco lost by the group of fans and athletes that rushed to praise his effort.
Oldach and Pacheco embraced at the finish line and, minutes later, Oldach came back to shake Pacheco’s hand.
“He said, ‘I respect you so much. Without you, it wouldn’t be this much fun,'” Pacheco recalled Oldach saying.
The day was also filled with personal bests.
Cameron Fooks (1:58.86) and Tim Gutierrez (1:59.49) each ran PRs in the 800; Emily Hess (29.05) did the same in the 200, as did Kayla Gray (20:49.46) in the 5k.
Chatham van Wingerden set a new PR in the high jump (1.77 meters).
TMU’s 4×400 relay team of Keylan Meneses, Isaac Ventura, Fooks and Kevin Pacheco set a new school record, finishing in 3:22.64.
When Ghiorso was called out of the bleachers to receive a pair of medals during an awards ceremony, a brief chant of “she’s a freshman” broke out.
Those same fans watched earlier as Ghiorso shifted into a higher gear on the final lap of the 1,500. To that point, she’d found herself in a slow-moving cluster, no one willing to break away.
“Everyone was right there. That was rough, feeling super claustrophobic,” Ghiorso said. “Coach told me to stay with the top group of girls and then come the final 400 to just blow it away.”
She did, finishing in 4:47.57 and becoming the fourth Mustang since 2013 to win the event.
Ghiorso’s season-best time of 4:36.46 from earlier in the year was the seventh fastest time in the NAIA entering the weekend. She’s scheduled to run the race again at nationals in Gulf Shores, Alabama, late next month.
Nalbandyan too will be in Alabama after becoming the first athlete since Westmont’s Elysia Hodges in 2012 and 2013 to win back-to-back women’s 400 hurdles titles here.
“I definitely feel a lot stronger (than last year),” Nalbandyan said. “I’m taking less steps in between hurdles. I feel a lot more confident.”
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