zags xc

Junior James Mwaura finished 36th, while redshirt junior Yacine Guermali took 55th for the Bulldogs.

The Gonzaga Bulldogs men’s cross-country team finished 26th overall at the NCAA men’s cross country championships in Tallahassee, Florida.

James Mwaura led the Bulldogs with a 36th place finish in the 10K, running 29:29.2 to cement his status as GU’s first ever All-American in cross-country. His time was the fastest 10K in school history, breaking his own school record.

“James is a low stick, said GU director of cross country Pat Tyson. "He’s steady eddy. He deserves to be All-American because he does everything, he works hard, he’s focused."

The Zags were making a return trip to nationals after running in the meet a mere seven months ago due cross-country taking place in the spring thanks to COVID-19. Mwaura was making his third consecutive trip to the meet as an individual.

As the 253 runners that made up the field of competitors shot off the starting line, a collage of colors and logos stampeded down the first 600 meters on an ideal 57-degree day in Florida.

Mwaura staked his status as one of the best in the country despite falling during the first 100 meters of the race.

“We certainly had high expectations," Tyson said. "A little bummer start during the race to watch James go down during the first 100 meters of the race. He’s got another opportunity next year to improve on his 36th place finish.”

Mwaura persisted, crossing the 2K mark in 104th place in a field that consisted of 253 runners.

Cullen McEachern, Wil Smith and Evan Bates found themselves in the thick of the field early on, running between 40th and 75th place as the race was taken out in a torrid pace.

With the passing of each subsequent kilometer, the trio dropped further back in the pack in one of the most challenging and ultra-competitive races held across the cross-country and track seasons.

Meanwhile, Mwaura made up ground on his competitors, passing dozens of runners with each passing kilometer until he settled in with four kilometers to go in 45th place.

From there, Mwaura had to scrap and claw to become an All-American. He ran nearly identical splits across the final kilometers, displaying his fitness and fortitude in the face of adversity.

With less than 50 meters left in the 6.2-mile race, Mwaura chased a pack six runners as he held off challengers from Northern Arizona and Washington. The pack was separated by less than a second.

The Bulldogs top five finishers consisted of Mwaura, Radosevich (133rd), McEachern (145th), Riley Moore (179th), Jake Perrin (233rd), Bates (238th), and Smith (241st).

“We thought if we had a really good day today we could get 10th,” said Tyson. “We finished 26th and it was a rough one. We had a lot of high numbers after James.”

Tyson emphasized that all of his athletes except Jake Perrin will be returning next year, including standout sophomore Yacine Guermali who did not compete due to injury.

GU's WCC foes had better fortunes in the race as the University of Portland placed 16th and BYU placed 7th as Connor Mantz won the race for a second consecutive year.

Before the men’s race, lone Bulldog Kristen Garcia competed in the women’s 6K after being selected as an at large qualifier for the national championship race.

Garcia was making her fourth straight trip to nationals after qualifying twice at the University of Wisconsin before transferring to GU and qualifying last year.

In a similar scene, 250 of the best women’s runners responded to the starter’s pistol and sprung off the line with an eager ferocity.

Based on her performance in the WCC Championship last Saturday in San Francisco, Garcia was poised to be in contention for an All-American spot.

However, about a kilometer into the race Garcia had to pump the brakes as she came to a near standstill to avoid a pileup of runners.

“To face the adversity she faced really early in a really short race I think she can be really proud of keeping her composure and making the most of it,” said GU women’s head coach Jake Stewart.

From there, Garcia rallied in a big way. Running in 148th place, Garcia picked off runners with each passing kilometer over the 3.7 mile race.

Garcia surged into the top 100 with two kilometers remaining as her consistent kilometer splits allowed her to outlast her competition.

Coming down the final straightaway Garcia was edged by Providence’s Maria Coffin, but held off Haley Herberg from Washington to claim 90th. Her finish was a marked improvement from last years championships where she placed 129th.

“She got stood up and stopped a thousand meters into the race. To go from running hard to a complete stop to then get back to 90th, I think it shows that she’s really good,” said Stewart. “I know she’s disappointed by it. I think she could be an All-American under different circumstances.”

Garcia’s finish is the best of her career and the second best in program history, trailing only Shelby Mills’ 82nd place finish in 2015. Garcia’s time was the 4th fastest 6K in program history.

“She was disappointed, but disappointed in circumstance more than performance. I think she’s proud of the way she fought back… she improved dramatically,” said Stewart. “She was in the wrong place at the wrong time early on in a race where over 6000 meters you don’t have a lot of time to get back into it.”

BYU’s Whittni Orton won the individual title after winning the WCC title last week as the Cougars placed 2nd as a team. USF’s Ruby Smee was an All-American, finishing 34th in a time of 19:53.6.

“We had an outstanding year. I don’t think any way you cut it you could say it was a disappointment. I think we are one of the best 30 teams in the country and I think [Garcia] is one of the best runners in the country. We have 12 months to solidify that.”

Tommy Conmy is a staff writer.

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