Texans notch fastest cross country times in recent memory at Texas A&M Invitational
COLLEGE STATION – If the second meet of the 2021 season on Saturday was a benchmark, Tarleton cross country more than met.
Tarleton tallied 11 combined personal records while eight athletes finished inside the top-40 of their respective races at the Texas A&M Invitational.
The men placed fourth out of 10 teams in the 8k race with 126 points behind an average time of 24:57. Tarleton finished ahead of four regional Division I foes in Arkansas-Little Rock, Prairie View A&M, Texas Southern and UTSA as well as former Lone Star Conference rivals Texas A&M-International and Texas A&M-Kingsville.
The performance marked Tarleton's second straight superb showing on Watts Cross Country Course. Tarleton's men's team finished second at the 2018 edition of the Texas A&M Invitational in its penultimate season as a Division II program against a meet field that included 10 Division I foes.
The women followed by taking sixth place on the 5k course with 136 points and an average time of 19:34. The Texans improved their team 5k time by eight seconds after averaging 19:42 to open the 2021 campaign at the UTA Invitational on Sept. 11.
Each of the seven men – five of whom are freshmen – head coach Pat Ponder entered notched collegiate 8k personal records.
Leading the way was Kevin Baez, who took sixth place in a race featuring 101 competitors with a time of 24:01.30. The effort was Baez's best to date in Purple and White. He clocked Tarleton's fastest 8k time in more than a decade and recorded his fourth consecutive top-10 finish and sixth of his career.
Sound race strategy carried Baez to a career day. He accelerated his mile pace from 4:54 at the 2k split to 4:51 at the 5.7k marker and closed the morning averaging 4:49 per mile. The junior jumped from 34th place a quarter of the way through the race to 14th at the 5.7k split before holding his position inside the top-10 over the final mile.
Joined at the hip alongside Baez early in the race was freshman John Sutton, who finished 29th in 24:50.50. The Conway, Arkansas native matched Baez's speed through the first two kilometers and sat 16 seconds back of Baez with a mile-and-a-half to go.
Brothers Khristian and Dominick Vastlik then teamed up to give the Texans four top-40 finishes. Khristian took 35th place in 25:03 in his first collegiate 8k race while Dominick, a junior, was not far behind, crossing the finish line 40th in 25:18.30. The elder Vastlik surpassed his previous 8k personal best by 1:02.
Rounding out the scoring for the men were a trio of freshmen. Mason Alexander and Angel Gomez finished 48th and 49th, respectively, with times of 25:31.40 and 25:34.70. The pair worked together throughout their 8k debuts, as Gomez never faltered more than five spots behind Alexander. Fellow newcomer Austin Flores placed 83rd in 26:50.50 in his Texan debut.
On the women's side, Ponder may have identified his next elite distance runner. Freshman Brooke Wendel was Tarleton's top performer, claiming 19th place in 18:44.30. Wendel posted the Texans' fastest women's 5k split in three years in her collegiate debut.
Behind Wendel was junior Jenna Brazeal, who again demonstrated consistency. Brazeal took 25th place in 19:04 and has cracked the top-30 in three consecutive races dating back to Tarleton's abbreviated spring 2021 campaign.
Freshmen Allison Hedrick and Sage Lancaster went back-to-back at 42nd and 43rd with marks of 19:45 and 19:48 to give Tarleton four sub-20:00 finishes. Hedrick, who was a five-time TX UIL 2A State Champion at Lindsay High School, has set 5k personal records in both of Tarleton's races this fall while Lancaster broke 20:00 for the first time in her Texan career.
Kaleigh Ellis then finished 53rd in 20:30.20 while Maria Diaz-Fernandez and Johnnie Wilkinson capped Tarleton's showing by placing 55th and 59th with respective times of 20:32.10 and 20:40.80. Diaz-Fernandez, who is originally from Madrid, Spain, made her collegiate cross country and Texan debut. The sophomore garnered All-Great American Conference accolades in April after finishing fourth in the 800m in 2:21.80.
Saturday's trek east was Tarleton's first of two trips to College Station. The Texans race on Watts Cross Country Course again on Oct. 16 at the Arturo Barrios Invitational.
Tarleton now breaks for a week before making the short drive to Ranger, Texas on Oct. 8 for the William Graham Ranger College Cross Country Invitational.