STEPHENVILLE – For the first time in two years and since beginning its NCAA Division I transition, Tarleton cross country will race in the fall.
And the development is a welcome one at that and arguably, overdue.
The decision by the Western Athletic Conference to postpone fall sports in 2020 left Tarleton with a truncated spring 2021 cross country schedule. The Texans ran at just two meets between January and February in the program’s inaugural Division I season. It was a far cry from the late summer heat and images of leaves turning rust red and racing spikes crunching through grass fields that help dramatize the traditional cross country experience.
But even as COVID-19 health and safety concerns remain present, it’s back to business as usual for Tarleton. The Texans are set to race at five meets, beginning with Saturday’s season-opener at the UTA Invitational and concluding with the WAC Championships on Oct. 30 in Riverside, California. Perhaps more exciting, too, is the fact that spectators will once again be allowed to attend meets.
“It will be awesome,” head coach Pat Ponder said. “It is so hard to stay motivated when there’s no one out there to cheer you on. We saw that at last season’s conference meet. This is going to be really nice. I know for me personally, getting some sense of normalcy will be well-needed. This stuff is wearing on everybody. It’s not just the athletes, it’s not just the coaches, it is everybody involved in this process.”
This weekend’s short bus ride sends Tarleton to Lynn Creek Park at Joe Pool Lake in Grand Prairie. The women kick things off at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday with a 5k race while the men will follow suit around 8:10 a.m. on a four-mile course. The meet field is expected to contain a mix of regional Division I and Division II competition. Results and a full meet recap will be posted on TarletonSports.com at the conclusion of the men’s race.
Saturday commences what Ponder considers a balanced schedule. All but one of Tarleton’s meets are hosted by a Division I school and the team leaves Texas just once.
Following UTA, the Texans make two trips east to College Station in a four-week span, first for the Texas A&M Invitational on Sept. 25 and later the Arturo Barrios Invitational on Oct. 16.
“When you look at my schedule, I have two Texas A&M meets on there, and I did that for a purpose,” Ponder said. “I can use the first meet as a benchmark to see where the athletes are at, and then the second one will give me an idea if what we’ve been doing is setting us up for a good conference championship.”
Sandwiched in between the two meets is a quick drive on Oct. 8 to Eastland County for the William Graham Ranger College Cross Country Invitational. Ponder said he anticipates using the meet as an opportunity to provide newcomers with racing experience.
The veteran coach said Riverside is an optimal location for the conference championships. Ponder has made past track and field trips to the Inland Empire for the Mt. SAC Relays and Bryan Clay Invitational.
“Most of that area over there tends to be rolling hills, but I did look at some of the times from previous meets and for whatever reason, this course looks like it could be fast,” he said. “That’ll be interesting in and of itself. Going to California, the weather is usually ideal for racing, and the years I’ve taken groups to the Mt. SAC Relays, the weather has just been impeccable.”
Tarleton’s combined roster is young but does not lack collegiate racing experience. Nine of the 10 athletes who raced during the spring 2021 season will don Purple and White again this fall.
The group is highlighted by junior Kevin Baez, who made Tarleton sports history by becoming the first athlete to receive All-WAC honors when he placed 10th at the WAC Cross Country Championships in February. Ponder said Baez, who boasts an 8k personal record of 24:43.20, is a possible school record-holder in the 5k and 10k.
“He’s a very strong runner, and as the distance continues to climb, he tends to run better,” Ponder said. “The ceiling for him is whatever he determines it to be. He’s a tremendous young man. The other athletes look up to him and I know for a fact that he’s going to make sure everybody is ready.”
For the women, three of the Texans’ top-four performers from the spring are back in senior Johnnie Wilkinson and juniors Jenna Brazeal and Kaleigh Ellis. Brazeal clocked Tarleton’s top 6k time of the spring (23:26.17) while Wilkinson and Ellis, respectively, finished second and third for Tarleton at both meets.
The Texans’ 2020-2021 returners also include Bryer Atkinson, Cory Calvani, Kevin Calvani, Lucas Kurtz, Riley McClure, Dominick Vastlik, Jordan Jones and Magaly Lopez.
Wilkinson is Tarleton’s lone senior. The Texans welcomed 15 newcomers – 11 freshmen and four transfers – this summer. Ponder’s recruiting priority was to restock the program’s depth.
A trio of transfers are on the women’s side. Vianney Sanchez, who twice competed at the NCAA South Central Region Championships for University of Arkansas at Little Rock, is set to conclude her collegiate career in Stephenville. Ponder also added sophomores Maria Diaz-Fernandez (Arkansas Tech) of Madrid, Spain and Aimee Landers-Wilburn (Austin College). Diaz-Fernandez was a 2021 All-Great American Conference honoree in the 800m while Landers-Wilburn exited Austin College as a school record-holder in the 5k and 10k.
Allison Hedrick, Sage Lancaster and Brooke Wendel are penciled in to race for the women on Saturday as are fellow freshmen Mason Alexander, Angel Gomez, John Sutton and Khristian Vastlik – the younger brother of Dominick Vastlik, a junior.
Rounding out the roster are freshmen Anna Hostetler, Kailey Sykora, Jacklynn Wenel and Austin Flores and juniors Alessa King, Gerardo Cipres and Robert King.
“I like the unity of the team,” Ponder said. “Our captains, with Baez on the men’s side and Brazeal for the women, they’re doing a tremendous job with the youth and with the returners. I sent them a text and told them how proud I was of them and that we need to continue to move forward.”
Ponder is hesitant to place finite expectations on the youthful bunch as the program enters its first true Division I season. Improvement is expected, however, in order to compete at a high level in the WAC. Especially with the conference’s expansion into Texas to add former Southland Conference members Abilene Christian, Lamar, Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin.
Five men’s programs and four women’s teams in the WAC are ranked inside the top-15 of the USTFCCA NCAA DI Regional Rankings to begin the season. Tarleton’s women’s team did not finish as a full squad in the Texans’ first WAC Championships appearance while the men placed seventh out of nine teams.
“The athletes have got to prepare themselves,” Ponder said. “They have to run in the summer, and if they don’t run in the summer to get ready – those three months dictate your level of ability to compete. In the Lone Star Conference, it was competitive probably between a few teams and then it kind of fell off. In the WAC, it is more of a distance-slash-cross country conference at this point. It’s only going to get tougher, because I know those teams coming in from the Southland are very good. It’s going to be an eye-opener, I think, for this young group.”
Despite featuring a roster heavy on underclassmen, youth will not be used as an excuse. Nor has an uptick in competition dampened excitement for this fall. The privilege to race again in a full season is not lost on Ponder or the student athletes.
“I really just want to see them compete,” Ponder said. “Our goal, as any team, we want to win, but we know, realistically, that the teams in the conference already and the teams coming in are very good. But I’ve told them many times, ‘There will be no excuses,’ and so I don’t want to hear them. I think if we train, if we stay healthy, then we’ll see what the end results are on October 30 when the races are completed.”