By Dan Lovi and Diego Marquez
Signal Staff Writers
The past year for The Master’s University athletics program was filled with countless highlights, program firsts and remarkable individual as well as team performances.
After finishing 11-17 in 2017, the women’s volleyball team rebounded this season in dominating fashion, going 29-8 overall and 16-2 in Golden State Athletic Conference play. TMU started the season on a nine-match winning streak and manufactured a 12-match winning streak in the middle of the season.
The Mustangs captured their first ever GSAC regular-season title and tournament title, earning an NAIA bid for the first time since 2013.
Though their season ended earlier than expected, losing all three matches in pool play at the NAIA tournament, it was still a historic year that was capped off with two players, Jane Cisar and Kayla Sims, named All-Americans.
In the same month that the women’s volleyball team concluded its season, the men’s basketball team started its campaign for a second straight GSAC crown.
The Mustangs finished the season 27-6 overall and 14-4 in conference action, producing two eight-game winning streaks in the regular season and another eight-game winning streak that continued through the GSAC tournament.
TMU claimed consecutive GSAC titles and won the tournament for a third straight season, a GSAC record.
However, history repeated itself in the first round of the NAIA Division 1 National Championship tournament, as the Mustangs lost in the opening game for the second straight year, this time on a 3-point buzzer-beater.
Nonetheless, it was still a notable season that concluded with three players being named All-Americans: Hansel Atencia, Delewis Johnson and Tim Soares.
Their counterparts on the women’s team had themselves a memorable season as well.
The Mustangs compiled a 28-7 overall record and 16-2 conference mark and put together a 15-game winning streak in the middle of the year. They advanced to the NAIA national quarterfinals for the second time in program history.
Although three seniors graduated, the Mustangs return a core group of talented young players including Anika Neuman and Stephanie Soares, who were selected as All-Americans.
The track and field team had a special season as well, with several individuals making the trip to the NAIA nationals in Gulf Shores, Alabama.
Seanna Nalbandyan repeated as an All-American, finishing in seventh place in the women’s 400-meter hurdles.
Justin Harris finished in ninth place in the men’s 3,000-meter steeplechase and Stephen Pacheco also finished ninth in the men’s 5,000-meter.
Arianna Ghiorso finished in the No. 11 spot in the women’s 1,500-meter, concluding a tremendous freshman campaign.
While there was a lot of excitement surrounding TMU’s athletic teams this year, the future will be even more thrilling.
Joining the winning tradition of the 13 established programs will be three new teams competing in the sports of men’s volleyball, women’s beach volleyball and women’s golf.
Allan Vince, who has coached the women’s volleyball team for five seasons, will helm the men’s team as well in 2019-20. The men’s volleyball team will join the GSAC and be eligible for the NAIA National Championship next year.
Olympian Annett Davis, an assistant on the women’s volleyball team, will coach the new women’s beach volleyball squad. TMU is building an on-campus beach volleyball complex that will be ready in the fall.
Jacob Hicks, the current men’s golf coach, will also lead the women’s golf team next year.
Five most memorable athletes
Hansel Atencia – Leading the Mustang’s men’s basketball team in scoring with 17.5 points per contest, the Colombia-born point guard served as the floor general throughout the year, finishing with a team-high 175 assists in 2018-19 that averaged out to 5.3 assists per game. With the ability to play both ways, Atencia was a staunch defender and averaged 2.1 steals per game on the way to being named an NAIA Division 1 Second Team All-American.
Anthony Lepre – Doing damage in his one year playing at The Master’s University, the senior University of California, Riverside transfer set the highest batting average in TMU’s program history (.438) and was second on the team in home runs (28) and RBIs (80). The Mustangs’ catcher was an All-GSAC Selection and an NAIA First-Team All-American. Lepre was taken by the Seattle Mariners in the 28th round of the 2019 MLB Draft.
Robert Penalbar – Shooting a career-low in The Master’s season-opener in Oklahoma City, Penalbar shot a 5-under 66 at the Lincoln Park Golf Course to finish in 21st place. Almost seven months later, Penalbar tied for fourth place at 1-over in the Corban University’s Desert Collegiate. Shooting a 13-over in the Golden State Athletic Conference Championship, Penalbar was the lone Mustang men’s golfer to qualify for NAIA Men’s Golf Championships.
Aaron Shackelford – The NAIA Player of the Year, Shackelford also won the Golden State Athletic Conference Player of the Year in a record year for the Mustangs infielder. He finished his senior season with 36 home runs, 99 RBIs, and OPS of 1.615 and a batting average of .415. His 36 home runs on the year breaks the previous TMU single-season record (19) and all-time record (34). Shackelford had six multi-home run games throughout the year and exits TMU as the all-time leader in home runs (67), RBIs (231) and runs (215), among other records. Shackelford was selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 14th round with the 424th selection in the 2019 MLB Draft.
Benji Tembo – Repeating as the Golden State Athletic Conference Player of the Year, Tembo finished his senior year scoring 10 goals and assisting on another five to rank third on the team with 25 points. Leading the team with 28 shots on goal, Tembo scored four game-winning goals and became the first player since the 2008-09 season to win the Player of the Year award in consecutive seasons.
Five most memorable female athletes
Caroline Barnett – The Mustangs’ swim team was loaded with freshman talent, and Barnett was one of the most impressive swimmers of the bunch. Barnett qualified for three individual events at the NAIA nationals, the 50-yard freestyle, the 100-yard butterfly and the 100-yard freestyle. She was the only Mustang to advance through the prelims and finished in 13th place in the 50-yard freestyle with a time of 24.69 seconds.
Seanna Nalbandyan – The sophomore track and field athlete won her second 400-meter hurdles title in a row at the GSAC Championships, making her the first women’s hurdler to win back-to-back titles in the event in the last five years. Nalbandyan recorded a winning time of 1 minute and 2.19 seconds. The All-American set a PR on the national stage, finishing in seventh place in the 400-meter hurdles with a time of 1:01.37.
Kayla Sims – The All-American was a huge factor in the volleyball team’s turnaround season, helping lead the Mustangs to a 29-8 record after going 11-17 the year prior. Sims led the team with 681 assists and 56 aces, and was second on the team with 347 digs. Additionally, she totaled 43 blocks and 179 kills.
Stephanie Soares – Boasting a .572 field goal percentage, the freshman center from Sao Paulo, Brazil ended her first year with the Mustangs with 29 double-doubles, on the way to being named the GSAC Player of the Year as well as the Defensive Player of the Year. Soares led the nation in rebounds averaging 13.4 per game and in blocked shots finishing with 173 on the year. She was named an NAIA First Team selection and All-American.
Mikala Tockstein – In her final conference championship race, the cross-country star shined the brightest, taking the top spot with a time of 17 minutes and 34 seconds to capture the GSAC individual title. Her time set a new collegiate record for TMU’s Central Park course.
Five most memorable teams
Men’s basketball – The Mustangs finished the year 27-6 and captured their second straight Golden State Athletic Conference regular season title and third consecutive tournament title. Earning a ticket to the NAIA Division 1 Men’s Basketball National Championship as a No. 2 seed, the Mustangs headed into postseason play with an eight-game winning streak, falling on a buzzer-beater in the first round to the University of Science and Arts.
Women’s volleyball – Starting off the season on a nine-match winning streak, the Mustangs were just as stingy on defense as they were lethal on offense, dropping only four sets on their way to the nine early-season wins. Putting together another winning streak of 12 matches, TMU shut out eight of the 12 opponents during that streak and earned its first-ever Golden State Athletic Conference title outright. Dominating Menlo College in the semifinals and Westmont in the championship, the Mustangs captured the GSAC tourney title and an automatic berth to the NAIA national tournament. The Mustangs fell in pool play, losing all three matches to close their season.
Men’s soccer – Suffering their first loss in overtime in the sixth game of the season, the Mustangs ended the year with an overall record of 14-5, going 6-2 in GSAC play. Featuring the GSAC Player of the Year, Benji Tembo, the Mustangs had three players including Luis Garcia Sosa and Trevor Mangan who finished with double-digit point totals and nine or more goals on the season.
Women’s basketball – Putting together an impressive 15-game winning streak toward the end of the regular season, the Mustangs captured their first-ever GSAC regular season title with an 81-40 win over Life Pacific. Stephanie Soares, the GSAC Defensive Player of the Year, and Anika Neuman were selected as NAIA First Team and honorable mention, respectively. The Mustangs earned a first-round bye in the GSAC tournament, falling in the championship game to Westmont before their season came to a close in the NAIA Division 1 quarterfinals against Montana-Western.
Baseball – Tied for fourth in the final GSAC standings, the Mustangs just missed out on the NAIA National Tournament after going 34-17-1 overall and 20-12 in conference play. The Mustangs roster featured two of the most dynamic and prolific hitters to ever don a TMU jersey, as Aaron Shackelford and Anthony Lepre combined to hit 64 home runs. Shackelford and Lepre were both selected on the third day of the MLB Draft, while Mustangs pitcher Robert Winslow signed a free-agent contract.
Baseball – Finishing tied for fourth in the final GSAC standings, the Mustangs began the conference tournament with a 16-15 extra-inning loss to Westmont College, but got their revenge after knocking off Arizona Christian University 7-6 to set up a rematch against Westmont College, which they won 16-4.
Men’s basketball – Winning nine out of the first 11 regular season games to begin the season, the Mustangs lost back-to-back games once during the season. Being designated a No. 2 seed in the NAIA national tournament for the third straight year after winning a second consecutive GSAC regular-season title, The Mustangs fell in the first round on a buzzer-beater to The University of Science and Arts.
Women’s basketball – Winning the 2018-19 GSAC regular-season championship, the Mustangs earned a first-round bye in the GSAC tournament, but fell to Westmont in the title game. Earning a No. 2 seed in the NAIA Division 1 Tournament, TMU dispatched the University of Science and Arts and MidAmerica Nazarene University in the first and second rounds before falling to Montana-Western in the quarterfinals.
Men’s cross-country – Winning its ninth consecutive Gsac cross-country title and Coach of the Year award, The Master’s men’s cross-country team led by head coach Zach Schroeder made its 12th appearance in 14 years at NAIA nationals, finishing in 20th place.
Men’s soccer – Closing out the regular season on a five-game winning streak, the Mustangs finished as runner-up, earning a first-round bye in the GSAC Tournament. Falling to Arizona Christian in the semifinals, the Mustangs finished with an overall record of 14-5, going 6-2 in GSAC play.
Women’s soccer – Finishing 13-6-1 overall, the Mustangs ended up in third place in the Golden State Athletic Conference, closing out the regular season with two shutout wins against San Diego Christian and Ottawa University Arizona. TMU beat Arizona Christian 5-2 in the quarterfinals and advanced to the semifinals for the fourth time in six years, falling to Westmont.
Women’s volleyball – The Mustangs won their first GSAC regular season and tournament titles this season. Dropping just two conference matches throughout the year, the Mustangs made quick work of Menlo College and Westmont in the GSAC semifinals and championship game, respectively, dropping one set combined on their way to the tournament crown. Qualifying for the NAIA Women’s Volleyball Championship, the Mustangs dropped the next three matches in pool play to end their season.