NCAA championship competitors were welcomed to the Indiana Theater on Thursday night with a lit marquee reading “Champions can come from anywhere.”

Indiana State junior John Mascari would prefer one of the champions hail from somewhere not so distant. How about a hometown champion? 

Mascari, who grew up in Terre Haute’s Collett Park neighborhood, has plenty standing in his way of NCAA championship glory. First and foremost, an odds-on-favorite looking to repeat his 2013 title. 

Sophomore Edward Cheserek of No. 3 Oregon became the fifth freshman to be crowned men’s NCAA champion in the sport last year in Terre Haute. On top of that, Cheserek won the NCAA indoor championships in the 3,000 meters and 5,000 meters, following those with a 10,000-meter title in June.

So yeah, he’s the man to beat. Mascari knows it. So do the other 200-plus runners at the starting line of LaVern Gibson Championship Course.

“Cheserek is a great runner,” Mascari said. “He’s obviously the known runner here in the nation. I’m not saying I’m going to beat him, but I’m going to go out and try to be the best like everyone else.”

Mascari was an All-American in 32nd place as a sophomore at LaVern Gibson and Saturday will be his final shot at winning the title here. The NCAA championships are in Louisville in 2015.

“I’m going to go into the race like every other individual and try to win. I’m excited. It’s my last big meet at LaVern. Maybe the Terre Haute magic will help me out,” Mascari said.

Mascari has proven he belongs among the NCAA’s elite this season, taking fifth in the ISU Pre-Nationals field that included elite runners from No. 1 Colorado and No. 3 Oregon and repeating as Great Lakes Region champion last weekend at Wisconsin. 

None of Mascari’s achievements have surprised Indiana State coach John McNichols.

“The way he’s raced the big races, Notre Dame and Pre-Nationals, he’s ran very well with the front pack. He’s beat some outstanding kids this year, [Anthony Rotich] from UTEP, ran up with Cheserek, the good Colorado kids, the guys that beat him at Notre Dame, he’s beat in the more recent race,” McNichols said.

Mascari repeated his 2013 season in some ways, winning a third straight Missouri Valley Conference title and defending the region crown with success, but he’s raised his game through hard work. 

Mascari’s mileage topped out at 140 miles in a week this summer. 

“He’s just taken another step. He elevated his training volume and the intensity of his hard days. His racing, he has gained some racing savvy. His strategy has improved,” McNichols said.

But mostly, he’s just worked and worked to get where he is, earning respect among his peers and among some fans in the community. Mascari has logged thousands of miles around Vigo County’s trails and streets. 

“He has great work ethic. Anyone in town has probably seen him. He puts in very high volume. I’m constantly hearing from people ‘I saw John running today.’ ‘Saw John running before work today.’ It’s putting the time in.”

Mascari’s desire to push himself to the limit has shown itself to McNichols also.

“He has high expectations for himself. Really a tremendous desire to do well,” McNichols said. “A normal guy will get to a point in the race and say ‘I’m tired, I can’t hold this pace.’ He just keeps going. That’s what’s made him the athlete that he is. I’ve coached a lot of guys that have as much talent and good work ethics, but not quite like his. He’s talented but also outworks everybody.” 

Now it’s time to execute on the day he’s been visualizing when out on those 20-mile long runs on Sundays. 

“I’m just going to go out with the top five, 10 and try to hold on. Last year, got out to a great start, maybe I got out a little too hot. Have to realize I can run with anybody and roll with it,” Mascari said.

Mascari’s goal came about in high school, but they became realistic expectations coming into focus after his sophomore season. 

“Expectations are going to be that he was going to run closer to the front than he did a year ago. How close will depend on how well the strategy works for the day,” McNichols said.

On Wednesday, Mascari ran a workout at LaVern Gibson through on a frozen surface with some snow still scattered throughout the landscape. As temperatures rise and rain is expected Saturday, conditions could get sloppy.

McNichols doesn’t expect anything to phase the best runner in ISU cross country history.

“Nothing else really matters except for Saturday. That’s been the goal all year,” Mascari said.

Craig Pearson has been a sportswriter at the Tribune-Star since his days as an undergraduate at Indiana State in the early 2000s. He has covered high school sports, Indiana State women's basketball, professional baseball, and NCAA cross country and track.

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