The Mustangs' 2010 cross country campaign came to an end Saturday at the NAIA National Championships in Vancouver, WA. "It was a good run this season," said Coach Zach Schroeder. "There are always a lot of emotions at the end of the season. This season's end was somewhat bitter-sweet, but definitely more sweet than bitter."
The men's team finished 11th overall, not nearly as high as it had hoped. Going into the national championship meet, Schroeder knew in order to finish in the top five, all five of his scoring athletes would need to have perfect races. Three of them would but, unfortunately, for the rest of the team, it was an off day.
"I'm disappointed with our team performance, but not discouraged. Obviously, we're not satisfied finishing 11th in the nation, especially when we're capable of so much more. That being said, for all but three of my athletes, none of the rest of my team has ever seen national level competition. It was a good experience for them. Now they know what it looks like; they know what to expect next year."
The disappointment of a sub-par team finish was offset by incredible performances from the Mustangs' top three. The John Gilbertson-Jeff Jackson-Anthony Pizzo combination excited the crowd just as it had all season long. All three athletes finished in the top 15 of the 326-man field.
Racing tough in less than optimum conditions, Jackson, the 2010 NAIA marathon national champion,demonstrated again what it takes to compete with the best in the nation, as did sophomores Gilbertson and Pizzo. The trio showed up to compete, racing immediately to the front of the field. The all-grass 8k course was muddy and torn up for the men's race, a result of the rain and spikes of the preceding women's race.
Choosing to disregard the challenging conditions, the Mustang threesome ran away from the rest of the field, intent on working together to reach the highest national team finish in school history as well as claim All- American honors in the process. Running together throughout the entire race, the pack of three was not separated until the final meters of the race. Pizzo, Gilbertson, and Jackson finished 9th, 12th and 15th respectively, with times of 25:10, 25:12, and 25:21.
The top 30 finishers received All-American honors, so placing three athletes in the top half of the field was truly a tremendous accomplishment. In what proved to be, arguably, the most competitive NAIA Cross Country National Championship in history, only Wayland Baptist University could boast as many frontrunners as TMC. Incidentally, all three of Wayland's front runners hail from Kenya and include Kenyan Olympic bronze medalist Kennedy Kithuka.
Coach Schroeder commented, "The work and dedication that has gone into what Gilbertson, Jackson and Pizzo achieved cannot be overstated. Champions are made in practice, and these three proved that to be true on Saturday. These three guys ran with the best 15 athletes in the nation, many of which are foreign and much older. Although they're talented, talent alone will never take an athlete to the level these men have reached. Their performances at nationals are a testament to the many sacrifices they've made to go out and represent their team, their college, and, most importantly, their Lord well. I couldn't ask for any more from my athletes. They've done everything I've asked them and more all season long."
This year has been marked by many successes for "The Master's Distance Project," a name adopted by the program's runners. In spring of 2010, Jackson brought home the second national individual title in school history, winning the marathon at the NAIA Outdoor Track and Field National Championships. In addition, five Mustangs also earned All-GSAC honors at the conference's track and field championships.
Riding the momentum from the spring, TMC distance running went on to claim its first-ever conference title in men's cross country, followed by the three All-American selections added Saturday in Vancouver, WA.
For Jackson, it was a beautiful finish to what was a very special collegiate career. Jackson returned to TMC in 2008 after a year sabbatical with a dream of building a team. In the process he earned a pair of cross country All-American nods and won a national championship in track. Getting his men's team to cross country nationals was part of the vision.
On Saturday, Jackson crossed the finish line and was met not only by the seven Mustangs competing with him on the national team, but also five other teammates who drove all the way to Washington to support their team; undoubtedly such dedication and support highlights the realization of Jackson's dream.