TMU Insider: Harris thriving in steeplechase ahead of NAIA nationals

TMU junior Justin Harris is one of nine Mustangs headed to NAIA nationals in Alabama later this month. Photo courtesy Jacob Velarde/TMU Athletics

By Mason Nesbitt
For The Signal

On more than one occasion this season, Master’s coach Zach Schroeder sat down with Justin Harris to discuss the junior’s most recent performance in the 3,000-meter steeplechase.

They explored what went well, what went wrong and the level of success that Harris’ training pointed to.

In short, Harris’ performance in practice suggested he was capable of races like his last two, the latest coming Saturday at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

Harris ran a PR in the event for the second time in as many races, finishing in 9 minutes, 26.44 seconds and continuing to build momentum as he prepares to join Canyon grad Seanna Nalbandyan and others at NAIA nationals later this month.

“He’s racing stronger, he’s more fit, he’s more confident than he’s ever been,” Schroeder said. “All those things are in our corner.”

Harris’ breakthrough performance came April 26 in Santa Barbara when he lowered his PR by an astounding 17 seconds. Harris said he was pulled along in what was the Golden State Athletic Conference championship race by teammate Stephen Pacheco, who won the title with Harris coming in second. Both athletes made NAIA nationals cuts; Harris for the first time in his career.

At the finish line, Schroeder wrapped Harris in a hug. Harris clenched both his fists in celebration.

The moment was months in the making.

“Justin is one of those guys who had done the work, done the work and we just needed the race set up the right way and he got that at conference,” Schroeder said. “That was a 17-second PR, which is huge, but that race was more reflective of how he’d been training.”

Harris credited a change in mindset for his recent improvement.

“Coach really hits home the fact that we are training at a level that allows us to compete better than what we actually think,” he said. “And by really trusting in the training we’ve done, it allows us to compete at that level.”

Schroeder hoped that Harris — who had tweaked his technique for clearing barriers after TMU’s meet at UCLA earlier this season — would be able to replicate his championship performance Saturday at Oxy, an event that in past years has served as one last chance for Mustangs to hit NAIA cuts.

This year, that wasn’t the case. Each Master’s athlete competing had already secured at least an NAIA “B” standard and would be making the trip to Gulf Shores, Alabama, for nationals May 23-25.

That group includes Arianna Ghiorso in the 1,500; Canyon High grad Seanna Nalbandyan, a returning NAIA All-American, in the 400 hurdles; Stephen Pacheco and Wesley Methum in the 5,000; and Keylan Meneses, Isaac Ventura, Kevin Pacheco and Davis Boggess in the 4×800-meter relay.

All were in action during a meet that didn’t end until late Saturday night because of lightning delays, but Stephen Pacheco might’ve been the most impressive of the group.

Pacheco set his mind to running 14:40 in the 5K at Oxy, a mark that would represent a personal best and would secure the NAIA “A” standard. His expectations were too low.

Pacheco won his heat and finished in 14:39.75, a mark that was well under the “A” cut and was the sixth-fastest time in the country this year as of Saturday. He is the fourth Mustang in program history to dip below 14:40 in the event.

“It’s exciting to see these guys running their best at the end of the season,” Schroeder said. “Justin continues to look better and better over the barriers. Stephen is racing with great confidence and running very intelligent races. Both guys have been incredibly focused and disciplined all season long. It’s going to be exciting to see what they do at nationals.”

Mustang golfer headed to nationals

Robert Penalber’s season isn’t finished. The Master’s senior will compete as an individual at the NAIA Men’s Golf Championship in Mesa, Arizona, May 21-24.

The Mustangs finished two strokes short of qualifying as a team at the Golden State Athletic Conference Championships last month. But Penalber earned the conference’s automatic individual berth, earning the second trip to nationals of his career.

Penalber finished tied for 76th place as a sophomore in 2017, the last year TMU went as a team.

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