TERRE HAUTE —
Breaking through barriers — physical and mental — one at a time is how athletes improve. A distance runner is constantly proving to himself or herself that time can be cut.
John Mascari took one step closer to his lofty goals Saturday at LaVern Gibson Championship Course. The Terre Haute native showed the field at the Pre-Nationals cross country meet that he belongs with the NCAA’s elite, but more importantly proved to himself he can keep knocking down those barriers in front of him.
His time of 23:41.77 was 14 seconds faster than he ran at Pre-Nationals in 2012, breaking his own school record. Mascari held on to finish 11th among 350-plus runners in a field of roughly half the top 25 teams in the nation.
“It’s definitely going to be a confidence booster. The goal this year was to run well under 24 minutes,” Mascari said. “I was defintely hoping for top 15 or 20 today.”
Last fall, Mascari flashed his potential with a 60th-place NCAA finish as a freshman at Louisville. On Saturday, Mascari was quite a bit closer to the man that won the 2012 title.
With just five runners between him and defending NCAA champion Kennedy Kithuka of Texas Tech, Mascari led a pack of runners past the 5K mark in 14 minutes, 52 seconds.
ISU coach John McNichols was impressed but not surprised at all by his frontrunner’s race.
“It’s really what we kind of expected from John,” he said. “This should have been a good indicator of what the possibilities are for him.”
Mascari’s plan was to make sure he got out quick enough to be with the lead pack.
No problem. He was in the top 10 after the first kilometer.
Mascari’s plan was to stay patient and hold his ground without burning too much energy grinding up the steady inclines or undulating innerworkings of the course.
“I stayed patient, didn’t go out too hard. That’s what I struggle with at times. I’m never patient. But today, it definitely worked out for the best,” Mascari said.
It was a positive experience for the largest of many meets he’s run on his hometown course.
“It’s kind of nice running on this course, knowing it better than everyone,” Mascari said. “It was an advantage having everyone here. I really enjoyed it. It was a nice experience. I’m excited, hoping to see what nationals has in store for me.”
In two weeks, Mascari will be the heavy favorite to repeat as Missouri Valley Conference champion. Then the regional, then the NCAA championships are five weeks away.
“It would be nice to finish top 40 this year, then a year from now top 20 or top 10,” Mascari said.
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The Sycamores, who finished 46th out of 52 teams Saturday, have “a lot of work to do behind that,” McNichols said.
Terre Haute South grad Taylor Head, the team’s No. 2 runner earlier this season, sat out with back spasms. Tristan Selby was ISU’s next finisher at 220th.
MVC rival Southern Illinois took 17th in the same race, while Illinois State was 38th and Loyola 40th.
“I was hoping for somewhere around 30th place as a team,” McNichols said. “It’s ended up being more of a rebuilding year than I anticipated or planned for. We have a lot of talent, we’re just young. We’re redshirting some good young guys.”
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ISU women’s coach John Gartland entered his team in the Women’s White 6K race, which was a lower-caliber field than the 49-team Blue race that featured 14 of the top 30 teams in the nation.
The Sycamores placed 26th out of 35 teams in that race, led by Nicole Lucas in 72nd in a time of 22:23.44 and senior Jessica Zangmeister in 84th at 22:33.88.
“I definitely thought we should be in the top half,” Gartland said. “Our pack was closer together than it had been. Maybe our first two runners didn’t run quite as well as they had been, especially compared to their best times.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do. Right now, we’d probably be picked seventh in the Valley, which would be our lowest finish ever. Hopefully we can rally from this.”
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Mascari was not the only former All-State Terre Haute North runner on the course Saturday.
Redshirt freshman Tyeson Mundy ran for IU’s second unit in the Pre-Nationals, while the first team was competing against another big-time field in the Wisconsin Invitational.
Mundy ran a personal-best 8K time of 25:20.74 to finish in 233rd place.
“We’re really deep right now and really young. Just trying to move up and I did that today. I was sixth on the team today, could move up, hopefully to travel squad,” Mundy said.
Mundy’s sister Chanli is a freshman on the IU varsity squad.
Chanli was the Hoosiers’ No. 5 runner with a time of 21:17 for 128th place. The Hoosiers had a solid finish of 12th in the championship field.
Craig Pearson can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TribStarCraig.