By Mason Nesbitt, TMU Sports Information Director
SANTA BARBARA — A decade or so ago, Zach Schroeder was a long-distance runner at Fresno Pacific University. So, the fact that the current Master’s track and field coach paced himself with a brisk jog, instead of a sprint, en route to greeting a pair of his athletes at the finish line Friday said more about his background than his level of excitement.
Schroeder hustled across Westmont’s stadium when he realized that both Stephen Pacheco and Justin Harris would qualify for NAIA nationals in the 3,000-meter steeplechase.
“That was awesome,” Schroeder said after reaching Pacheco and Harris on Day 1 of the Golden State Athletic Conference Championships. “You gave it everything you had.”
Pacheco, running the event for the first time ever, won the GSAC title and hit the NAIA’s “A” standard. Harris, the race’s defending champion, finished second and secured the “B” standard.
Schroeder hugged Harris and threw an arm around Pacheco, who had already qualified for nationals in the 5,000 meters but wanted to run the steeple because it was on his “bucket list,” he said.
The desire stemmed from high school when he participated in parkour, a recreational activity that involves running, jumping and climbing over obstacles, often in public places.
“Running and doing parkour at the same time was something I always wanted to do,” Pacheco, a senior, said, “and the steeplechase is the closest thing to that. It was fun trying it out.”
Pacheco and Harris weren’t the only Mustangs to qualify for nationals Friday.
All season, Schroeder believed his men’s 4×800 relay was on the cusp of a breakthrough. At one point, the foursome even ran individual 800 times that would have stacked up to meet the NAIA cut. Friday, the pieces came together.
Keylan Meneses, Davis Boggess, Kevin Pacheco and Isaac Ventura made the cut by more than a second with a time of 7 minutes, 46.83 seconds. Ventura ran the closing leg, collapsing on the infield only feet after completing the race.
The freshman remained facedown in the grass even after Boggess informed him of the favorable outcome.
“Are you sure?” Ventura said. Boggess assured him.
“As Isaac came down the final 50, I saw the time and I knew the qualifying times,” Boggess said later, “and I was jumping up and down because we were about to qualify. He came through.”
The relay finished second to Westmont, but the group was focused on the bigger picture, much the way Harris (9:28.66) felt about coming in behind Pacheco (9:23.22) — a conference title would have been nice; a trip to Gulf Shores, Alabama, in late May was better.
“I’m really thankful for the opportunity to stick around and keep training with these guys,” Harris said. “It’s something I’ve been working toward these last three years now so I’m just thankful to finally hit that mark.”
Harris, who cut 17 seconds off his personal best, credited Pacheco for pulling him to a faster time after Pacheco passed him midway through the race.
Pacheco clambered over the barriers, with determination if not grace.
“Every steeple I wasn’t sure what form to use. Sometimes I used my hands, sometimes I stepped over it. Other times I jumped to the side,” Pacheco said. “I was trying to figure out what worked best and at this point I still don’t know what worked best. It just happened.”
Elsewhere, Kayla Gray earned All-GSAC honors in the women’s 10,000. She finished third in a time of 42:34.57.
Seanna Nalbandyan qualified for Saturday’s final in the 400 hurdles. She won the event here as a freshman last year and figures to find herself in another showdown with Westmont’s Emily Parks. Parks ran the faster prelim Friday as Nalbandyan ran a conservative race. Nalbandyan still holds the GSAC’s fastest time in the event this season and the fifth fastest in the country.
Freshman Arianna Ghiorso also ran a conservative prelim in the 800, advancing to Saturday’s final as the No. 4 seed. She will also compete in the 1,500 final on Saturday. She holds the conference’s fastest mark of 2019 in both events.
Cameron Fooks and Tim Gutierrez both qualified for the finals in the 800. Emily Hess advanced directly to the finals of the 200 as there wasn’t a prelim.
Click here for all the results.