Monte Vista Christian junior Justin McCullick who won the Mission Division boys race during the Pacific Coast Athletic League Master Meet at Palo Corona Park in Carmel on Oct. 28. (Jonathan Natividad/special to The Pajaronian)

The future of the Monte Vista Christian cross country program is brighter than their cobalt blue mascot—whose speed and endurance seems to have been acquired by the runners.

After an offseason focused on preparing a team of young runners, the Mustangs have been triumphant in multiple ways this season.

The boys team continued their success after winning the Mission Division crown at the Pacific Coast Athletic League Masters Meet at Palo Corona Park in Carmel on Oct. 28.

Leading the herd was team co-captain Justin McCullick who won the Mission Division race in 17 minutes, 14.90 seconds, followed by fellow co-captains Gavin Beckman (18:18.30) in 10th and Conor Gilliam (18:39.50) in 15th. 

The Mustangs won the Mission Division championship race as a team with a score of 60, earning them a trip to compete in the Central Coast Section Championships at Crystal Springs Cross Country Course in Belmont on Nov. 11. 

MVC finished ahead of Hollister (71), Greenfield (95), Watsonville (96), Stevenson (103), Alvarez (113) and Soledad (127). 

“Our league is getting better and it’s hard to lead a team to be at the top,” Gavin Beckmen said.

This comes after former star runner James Ponzio won the PCAL Gabilan Division race and took 6th in the CCS Division V finals to qualify for the CIF State Championships in Fresno. 

Ponzio also set a course record at Palo Corona Park for the 3.1 mile race—finishing in just 16 minutes and 46.90 seconds.

“We don’t have a James Ponzio,” MVC first year head coach Erik Beckmen said. “Sometimes it takes more in a team to reach the goals you want. Ponzio was great but he didn’t have any support.”

This year was completely different with MVC’s three co-captains and the next group of fastest runners generally finishing within just seconds of each other.

Gilliam and Beckmen both are just sophomores, while McCullick—a transfer student from Rancho San Juan—is still in his junior year.

“I hope that our team stays together and we make it to state maybe the next couple of years in a row,” Gavin Beckmen said. “I think we have to just keep training in the offseason and not ruin what we have here right now.”

Some believed the departure of Ponzio would spark a rebuilding phase from the Mustangs, yet they may have returned even stronger.

Despite having such a young roster, the runners have demonstrated a relentless work ethic by running up to 40 miles each week before the fall season kicked off. 

One distinguishable factor of this year’s squad is depth.

Not only are their top three runners among the fastest in the Mission Division, but MVC also has a trio in Eli Kieft, Mario Chavez-Gonzalez and Bradley Orlando, who make up the second fastest pack and finish 30-40 seconds behind the team captains.

While there are many factors for what results in a good time, Gilliam said the most important factor for him is how he mentally approaches each race. 

“If you’re in the right mental zone and you want it you’ll probably do well,” he said. “Also keying off other runners is a really big part in staying in that good mental zone.”

The 3-mile run is where most Mustangs feel most comfortable with few hills, and finishing under 16 minutes has been a goal for Gilliam.

During the third and final PCAL center meet of the regular season, MVC had six runners finish well below 17 minutes at the 3-mile course at North Monterey High on Oct. 12.  

Of their 10 meets this season, Gilliam won five races, followed by Beckmen with three wins and McCullick with a pair of victories under his belt.

Gilliam typically dominated on flatter or shorter courses, while Beckmen has proven to be the team’s frontrunner with courses that feature greater elevation.

“The next two courses are pretty hilly between Palo Corona and Crystal Springs,” Erik Beckmen said. “We’re doing a lot more hill workouts than we normally would.”

In a standard week, the Mustangs practice about five times with endurance runs as well as boosting speed with strides and hill runs followed by a meet.

The team has implemented stretching, resistance bands and even post-workout ice baths to improve recovery and mitigate risk of injury.

Tuesdays are usually the most difficult days. The team endures 40 minutes of sprints at varying intervals to train the body to push itself at the end of the race, when the runners’ vision is blurred and gasping for air becomes well within their comfort level.

Apart from missing Ponzio, the girls team also lost Caelan Gilliam—a CIF State qualifier—due to graduation and head coach Michael Lanham stepped down from his coaching duties.

The Mustangs have a relatively small roster with just seven varsity boys and three girls, which includes standouts junior Kylie Brunelli and freshman Finley Castro. 

Brunelli took third in 21:37.90 in the Mission Division girls race. She finished behind King City High sophomore Rose Ruelas (21:32) in second and Watsonville High junior Katelynn Ruiz (20:19.80), who won her third straight individual league championship race.  

Beckmen hopes to recruit greater numbers in the coming years. He also expects MVC to get bumped up into the Gavilan Division next year where they’ll face tougher competition including back-to-back league champion Alisal High. 

Until then, there was just one goal both coaches and players were fixated on.

“We want to win league this year,” said Erik Beckmen, prior to last week’s PCAL Masters Meet. “There’s a lot of good teams and Watsonville has a couple really good runners.”

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