TERRE HAUTE —
For the first mile, a blond-mustached figure with faint complexion stood out among a pack of mostly Kenyan runners in the lead pack at LaVern Gibson Championship Course.
Indiana State’s John Mascari piloted himself around the muck of the long straightaway and remained within a few strides of defending NCAA champion Kennedy Kithuka of Texas Tech nearly halfway through the first 5,000-meter lap of the NCAA Championships.
The former Terre Haute North Vigo standout settled back into 35th place by the midpoint of the 10,000-meter race, before losing more ground then fighting his way back to take 32nd in a time of 30 minutes, 38.5 seconds.
Top 40 was his goal all along. The previous best for an ISU runner was Charles Warthan’s 41st for All-American honors in 1970.
He’s Indiana State’s men’s second cross country All-American, joining Warthan and Farmersburg native Jessica (Crowder) Wayton, who is the only women’s All-American for coach John Gartland in 2003.
Mascari was drained but smiling a few minutes after the race in sub 30-degree temperatures with winds above 30 miles-per-hour.
“I think I went out a little too hard; I think that’s why I got winded so much,” Mascari said. “The first 5K, I went through about 15-flat, maybe 15:10,” Mascari said. “I’m just really surprised and overwhelmed. With about 3K to go, I was this close to feeling like I was going to have to drop out. I was cramping up, my throat was killing me, and something told me to keep going.”
Freshman Edward Cheserek of Oregon became the Ducks’ fourth men’s cross country champion and the first OU runner to do it as a freshman, topping Steve Prefontaine’s third-place finish in 1969. Third-ranked Colorado picked up the fourth men’s team title for the Buffaloes, all coming since 2001 under coach Mark Wetmore.
Women’s race favorite Abbey D’Agostino of Dartmouth was the women’s 6,000-meter winner, while No. 1 Providence won the team title.
Mascari, the hometown runner, showed he has the potential to turn into a potential title contender.
Mascari was 60th as a freshman at Louisville in 2012 — an impressive accomplishment. But he’s been driven to make All-American in his hometown.
“I’m thankful for everyone here, and thankful I did it. Whew, feels really good,” Mascari said.
As for the race strategy, Mascari knew he needed to get out quick because making up ground in the slippery conditions would be difficult to manage.
But he wasn’t necessarily planning to be within a quick surge of the lead.
“It was really cool, I kind of knew it was too good to be true so I had to step back,” Mascari said.
The front straightaway was also shortened due to flooding at the normal starting line. Runners took off about 120 meters in front of the usual starting line so the men’s race was actually about 9,880 meters.
“My box was too far to the left. There was just mud puddles all the way around the straightaway, so I knew I had to get out,” Mascari said. “At this point, I really don’t care. I’m just happy I got top 40. It’s a big blessing, so happy right now.”
ISU coach John McNichols was among many ISU staff members working to get the course in as good a shape as possible throughout the week. He was out on one of the utility vehicles in front of the runners during the action.
“I told him you might as well take advantage of the outside of the straightaway, it’s as firm there as it is anywhere,” McNichols said. “The first time I saw him was past the mile marker, and he was in the top 10. Saw him again at the two-mile mark, and he slipped back some. I think he was about 30th there. I wasn’t concerned.”
As Mascari said, he was hurting. But he and Purdue sophomore Matt McClintock worked together throughout the race.
“Every time I saw him, gave him a pat on the back,” Mascari said.
Mascari summoned enough to finish the race strong and comfortably place among the top 40 for All-American honors.
“He finished well,” McNichols said. “That’s a credit to his strength and all the work he’s put in. It’s a great day for our program. We met our goal.”
McNichols is the school record holder in the 10K (30:25) and 8K (23:55) distances for cross country.
Mascari is the third ISU cross country runner to qualify for the NCAA Championships twice, joining Warthan (1970, 1971) and Jason Gunn (1999, 2000).
“I think with all the things he’s done, the record book would say that,” McNichols said. “We’ve had a lot of good kids, but right now John’s taking things to a new level. Very excited for what’s going on.”