Nic Maszk’s individual effort at the NAIA National Championships was almost a perfect microcosm of how the Eastern Oregon men’s cross country team felt about its effort.
“I had two goals. One was to be top 10,” the senior said. “The other was to be better than I was last year. I was 12th last year, and I got 11th (this year). So right in that middle spot. I’m happy with it.”
Maszk’s second consecutive all-American performance, which came in a time of 25 minutes even, led the way for the Mountaineers, who came in seventh at Saturday’s national meet in Vancouver, Washington.
The result was short of the team’s
ultimate hope of getting into the top four and earning the program’s third trophy in history, but met the goal of exceeding the rank the Mountaineers entered the race with, which was ninth.
“It’s a good day, (and) just short of a very good day,” head coach Ben Welch said. “It’s a matter of just mere seconds here or there. (We) were two points out of sixth place. That’s a couple of guys being a half a second faster. But as far as top four, we knew that was going to take a superb race. We had a good day (but) not quite a great day. We needed a great day to be in the top four.”
The Mountaineers finished with 275 points as a team, just behind sixth-place St. Mary, of Kansas. British Columbia coasted to the title with 41 points and had five runners in the top 14.
“I figured nobody would touch UBC. They were just a little more dominant than I thought,” Welch said.
Maszk and EOU’s No. 2 runner Thomas Morrell III paced the Mountaineers most of the morning. Both were around 20th near the end of the third lap of the four-lap race before a side stitch, or side cramp, knocked Morrell back.
Alex Navarro moved up to finish second for the Mountaineers, coming in 66th in 25:56. Dustin Zimmerly followed in 78th in 26:05 and Morrell fought back for an 86th-place finish in 26:10.
Lane Inwards rounded out the top five for EOU in 119th in 26:23.
“(For) the team, it was split. We had guys do something they really wanted to do. Then we had a few guys not do as well as they wanted to do,” Maszk said. “But that’s the thing about cross country. It’s a one-take race. There’s no timeouts. There’s no redos. I think as a team we still did good. Seventh is nothing to be disappointed in.”
Welch said for the most part, his runners finished within their target ranges. He added that even had Morrell not had the side cramp flare up and he finished in the top 20, EOU still would have missed out on a trophy. The Mountaineers finished a distant 82 points behind the No. 4 team, Southern Oregon.
Navarro said part of the challenges the competitors faced Saturday was running on a grass course and the size of the field — 328 runners took part. He added, though, that the experience from last year, when the team got bogged down early in the race and had to battle back to 13th, helped.
“It’s always so unexpected how everything’s going to turn out because there’s so many variables.”
Like Maszk, Navarro said he wasn’t disappointed with the effort by the team.
“I thought I was (disappointed) at first, but I talked to everyone on the team and I honestly believe that everyone worked with what they had,” he said. “That’s all you can ask of them is to work as hard as they could in that moment. I’m happy.”
The bag of mixed feelings for EOU carried over to the women’s race, too. The Mountaineers’ lone national competitor, Rachel Roelle, finished 32nd with a time of 18:08, just two spots shy of earning all-American status.
“It hurts because I was so close and I really wanted it, but I honestly don’t think I could have done anything else,” the senior said. “I left it all out there.”
Roelle ran much of the race in about the 35th- to 40th-place range, but said working to gain ground on the runners ahead of her was a major challenge.
“Every time I felt like I got someone, someone else would come up on me,” she said. “I was trading places back and forth. They all went out so hard.”
She made a move late to get to 32nd, but was about three seconds outside of the coveted 30th spot.