By beating maybe the No. 1 threat to the first conference title in program history, The Master’s University men’s basketball team might also have moved closer to being No. 1 – in the country. The latest NAIA Division 1 coaches poll is due out today, and TMU’s 88-72 rout of No. 7 Hope International at home Saturday could factor in a jump up the ranks for the No. 4 Mustangs. Master’s opened the year at No. 5 and has since gone 21-1, winning its last 20 games and going 7-0 in Golden State Athletic Conference play. The NAIA’s No. 2 and 3 teams – Lindsey Wilson (Kentucky) and LSU Shreveport (Louisiana) – both lost at least once since the last poll on Jan. 16, so things are looking up for TMU, which survived a treacherous trio of games unscathed. The Mustangs beat No. 20 Westmont College (74-71) on Jan. 20; Vanguard University, which received votes in the most recent poll, on Jan. 25 (86-79); and Hope on Saturday in a rematch of last year’s GSAC tournament title game. The Mustangs won the tourney crown in a double-overtime thriller that would have been hard for Saturday to live up to even if Hope’s star center, Liam Hunt, had played. Master’s used a crushing 17-3 run to build an 11-point lead at halftime. It then stormed out of the break with a 12-3 spurt, highlighted by 3-pointers from Hansel Atencia and Delewis Johnson, to go up by 20. Atencia finished with a game-high 26 points, while Johnson followed with a season-high 22 in a breakout performance. Coaches have prodded Johnson, a 6-foot-3, 210-pound wing, to use his burly frame to finish near the rim. Saturday, he attacked. “(I wanted to) go downhill like coach has been saying all year,” said Johnson, whose team leads Westmont by one game, Hope by two, in the GSAC standings with seven to play. “I’ve kind of been fighting it a little bit and trying to be someone I’m not.” In all likelihood, the Mustangs are not staying at No. 4. But how high will they go? William Penn (Iowa) – the nation’s current No. 1 – is 20-1 and hasn’t lost since Dec. 2. This weekend, TMU’s men’s and women’s teams play on the road at William Jessup and Menlo College before hosting San Diego Christian and Arizona Christian at Master’s on Feb. 8 and Feb. 10, respectively. The Mustang women (13-6, 3-4 in GSAC) lost to Hope on Saturday, 81-59, despite 18 points from Anika Neuman and 16 points from Brooke Bailey. It put a slight damper on a week that started with a bang. Master’s beat No. 2 Vanguard University, 75-62, on Thursday behind Hannah Forrar’s career-high 34 points. The Mustang sophomore did it on 8-of-11 shooting. For more info and schedules, visit GoMustangs.com.
Canyon High grad makes strong impression
Saturday provided a home-field advantage of sorts for freshman Seanna Nalbandyan, one the Mustang track and field athlete has grown accustomed to. So even though she was technically 75 miles north of her hometown, and even though she wasn’t running the event she specializes in, she still felt the rush of familial support as she won the 400-meter dash at the On Your Marks meet at Westmont College in Santa Barbara. Six family members gathered to watch as the Canyon High of Santa Clarita graduate posted the third-fastest 400 time in TMU women’s history (59.84 seconds), taking first in the event ahead of runners from Bakersfield College, Claremont-Mudd-Scripps and Concordia University Irvine. “They’ve always been there to support me,” Nalbandyan said. “It touched me when they came out to my first collegiate track meet. It made me want to run harder for them.” Other Mustang highlights on a day meant as an early season tune-up included Tess Thompson’s time in the 60 meters (8.68) and the women’s 4×800 relay, where the Mustangs took second. Rachelle Nelson, Mikala Fairchild, Rylee Bishop and Abigail Frankian teamed up to run it in nine minutes, 58.20 seconds. Nalbandyan’s meet-best time in the 400 came despite the fact she specializes in the 400 hurdles. At Canyon High last season, she won the Foothill League championship in the 100 and 300 hurdles. She finished eighth at the CIF Southern Section finals in the 300 hurdles. That left few, well, hurdles in her way to coming to Master’s, where the coaching staff has built a strong relationship with Canyon’s staff over the years. Some of TMU’s best athletes were once Cowboys. In fact, the program’s first woman to advance to the NAIA track nationals, Hayley Parkinson, came from Canyon, located nine miles from TMU’s campus. Nalbandyan appears to have All-American potential, a hard worker with a goal and the talent to make it happen. “Seanna has worked incredibly hard all fall and winter long,” said Master’s coach Zach Schroeder. “(Master’s sprints and hurdles coach Denean) Hill has done an outstanding job with her training. It’s fun to finally get to see her race.”