With a kilometer to go in the Big West Championship race Friday in Nipomo, Cal Poly Women’s Cross Country was several points behind UC Davis in the team standings.
The last stretch of the course required runners to climb a hill before looping around a tree and before hitting a downhill straightaway to the finish line.
“Every point matters!” screamed the crowd to junior Carissa Buchholz as she began to make her final push up the hill.
Buchholz passed four runners in the last half mile to place eighth overall and was a key factor for the women’s team securing the Big West Championship on Friday, Oct. 27, despite the Mustangs’ highest placing being fourth overall.
This race was very special because it’s not just for myself,” Buchholz said with tears in her eyes. “I love every single one of the girls on my team, and I was running for them today.”
The Cal Poly Cross Country program swept the men’s and women’s side of the Big West Championship for the second consecutive year under head coaches Ryan Vanhoy and Michelle Chewens.
Vanhoy said that when he arrived at Cal Poly last year, he wanted to see the men and women consistently win the Big West, and during his two cross country seasons, both teams have won back-to-back titles.
But winning conference championships is the starting point, according to Vanhoy. In order to build a national-caliber program, he believes the Mustangs need to make the NCAA Championships conssitently while producing All-Americans in track.
But on the crisp Friday morning, the Mustangs took a step in the right direction.
On the men’s side, the team stormed to a dominant 60-point win with six of Cal Poly’s runners in the top 14 (Cross country team scores are calculated by adding up the placements of the top five runners for each team and the lowest total wins).
Cal Poly finished with 27 points. UC Santa Barbara, who was the next closest team in scoring, had 87 points. Six of the runners for Cal Poly finished in the top 15, including graduate Davis Bove and junior Aidan McCarthy, who secured first and second respectively.
Bove crossed the finished line at 23:37.4 while McCarthy, who earned First Team All-Ameican in track last spring in the 800-meter, ended with a 23:41.6 mark.
Late push gets women’s cross country over the top
The women’s 6K race was much closer, with the Cal Poly women, ranked No. 9 in the NCAA West Region, competing against No. 7 UC Davis.
In previous bouts this season with the Aggies, the Mustangs have finished with higher team scores, but neither program was able to run with their full slate of runners either time.
Redshirt junior Schuyler Gooley was Cal Poly’s first finisher and fourth overall in the race with a time of 20:34, while UC Davis’ top athletes ran away from the field early to finish first, second and third.
But the UC Davis runner in fourth for most of the race collapsed from exhaustion less than two hundred meters from the finish line and took nearly a minute to regain her strength, according to a Cal Poly supporter, adding consequential points to the UC Davis score and allowing Cal Poly to move into the lead.
The Mustang women stayed together with six of their seven runners finishing in the top 15. The Aggies’ fourth and fifth runners placed 20th and 33rd.
“(Coach Chewens) said before the race, ‘This is gonna be a dogfight to the finish,’” Gooley said. “And everyone stepped up.”
Despite being 12 points behind Davis with a kilometer to go, Cal Poly won with 39 points to Davis’ 58
Sophomore Riley Cash, Cal Poly’s fifth runner, said she has never run as hard as she did Friday morning. She stumbled and nearly tripped several times as she tried to pass a final competitor, eventually collapsing past the finish line.
Buccholz’s late surge also boosted the Mustangs placement.
“It comes down to even your seventh girl,” Buccholz said. “I just remember telling myself you got to give it all you got until the finish line.”
With each person she passed, Buchholz said she gained the energy to go catch another one. After the race, the 5000-meter indoor school record holder said it was the first time she’d ever collapsed to the ground in exhaustion post competition.
Men’s team overcoming injury
The men overcame adversity when veteran senior William Fallini-Hass, who finished second place at the championships in 2022 went down with an ankle injury and couldn’t complete the race.
But ultimately, the team overcame the injury and still ended up handily beating the rest of the competition.
For Bove, it was just another day running with his teammates.
“Execution is what’s expected of us on a daily basis,” Bove said. “We all just try our best to run with the confidence that we are the best. We push the expectations away.”
Bove transferred this summer from LSU specifically to train with coach Ryan Vanhoy, the 2022 Big West Cross Country Coach of the Year.
So far, that decision has paid off for Bove as he’s won all three races he’s run this season.
“It’s really reassuring that I made the right decision and I’m doing the right thing,” Bove said.
Bove is also a two-time national triathlon champion and said his swimming and biking background gives him a leg-up on his competitors.
“Nobody in the NCAA is training like I am,” he said. “It’s something I take with me every race. I’m doing something these guys aren’t doing.”
Vanhoy was happy with his team’s performance, especially considering injuries like Fallini-Haas’ which have plagued the Mustangs all year.
“We’ve been battling this season to get to a meet with all of our guys healthy,” Vanhoy said.
If Cal Poly gets Fallini-Haas back for the NCAA West Regional in two weeks in Sacramento, they could be in the running to qualify for the NCAA Championships.
The men’s and women’s teams will race the NCAA West Regional on Friday, Nov. 10 in Sacramento, with a trip to the NCAA Championships later that month in Virginia on the line.
Whatever the outcome, the Mustangs were hopeful about the team’s future.
“The fact that we did win [the Big West] again is a testament to how much we’ve grown and how strong we really are,” Buchholz said.