Associate head coach Wes Ashford has been coaching cross country since 1997 and has seen his share of teams both good and bad.

What separates the good teams from the bad, according to Ashford, is not the talent individuals possess, but more about what goes on between the ears.

“We’ve had some kids come here that were just off-the-chart talent wise, but they lacked the belief and they lacked confidence,” Ashford said. “They just really didn’t want to put the effort in and it showed.”

After failing to reach the NCAA Division II Championships last year as a team, men’s cross country qualified with an at-large bid thanks to a fourth-place finish at the NCAA West Region Championships on Nov. 17.

The group that competed at regionals and will be traveling to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania includes junior Alejandro Ambrosio, junior Israel Cardona, freshman Alejandro Mariscal, junior Eamon Smythe, sophomore Jeremiah Suzara, freshman Tristan Sylva and freshman Jonathan Woolf.

Woolf joined the team for the Festival Year Fiasco race in Evansville, Indiana.

“He proved that he was ready to go,” Ashford said. “We don’t want to burn a year of eligibility if they [freshmen] can’t help us. We gave him half a year to see if he could help us, [and] he definitely can help us.”

Jonathan Woolf left, and Alejandro Ambrosio racing in the West Region Championships last week. (Courtesy of Shi Robinson)

Suzara was the only athlete who competed last season and returned this season.

The rest of the team is made up of freshmen, transfers and athletes who redshirted last season, meaning they trained with the team but never competed.

“I think last year’s team we were equally as talented as this year, but I feel like this year we have a better mindset and a better effort,” Suzara said. “Last year we just thought everything was going to happen, we didn’t have to work for it.”

In 2017, the team relied on all-American Ruben Dominguez to lead the way in nearly every race and was the only Bronco to earn a place at nationals, where he finished 21st overall.

This season, Smythe, Ambrosio, Suzara and Sylva have all been the team’s top finisher.

“We all have the capability to be up there and that’s what motivates us,” Ambrosio said.

According to Ashford, one of the team’s only weaknesses caused them to underperform at the California Collegiate Athletic Association Championships, where they finished third overall.

“The inexperience got us at conference, going out to fast, but yet they matured in that two weeks and we were able to handle a bigger race, on a bigger stage,” Ashford said. “Their ability to adapt, that’s their strength.”

All season, the team has been trying to build each race so that peak performance can be achieved during championship season.

With one more championship race remaining, not much more can be done to make significant improvements in the pace of the team, according to Ashford.

“The thing that we’ve been working on a lot of is being able to stay with the front pack,” Smythe said. “Our biggest issue is that as a team we just got to remember to stay as a pack but also not be afraid to move up.”

Smythe transferred from Orange Coast College last year but redshirted. He has taken on a leadership role for the young team this season.

“He definitely has a calming effect on the team when he’s there as well,” Ashford said. “They know, ‘Hey, we should be up there with Eamon and running with him.’”

The team was given Thanksgiving off but was back on the training course on Friday for a “quality workout” and on Saturday for a “long run.” Before leaving for Pittsburgh Wednesday, the team practiced again Tuesday.

Cal Poly Pomona will be among 34 teams competing this weekend for the national championship.

The top three teams from each of the eight regions earned automatic bids along with 10 teams earning at-large bids.

In addition, 24 individual athletes qualified. Each team will have seven competitors.

“I think a top-10 finish with this group is totally within our capabilities,” Ashford said. “The best that we’ve finished in the last 20 years has been eighth; this team is capable of doing that as well.”

The race begins at 9 a.m. Pacific Time on Dec. 1 and is available to be streamed o-line with a subscription to FloTrack.com.

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