Westmont Men’s and Women’s Track and Field entered the final day of the NAIA Outdoor Track and Field National Championships without yet receiving an All-American honor. By day’s end Friday, the Warriors left with not only five All-Americans, but a national champion in their midst.
The final day got rolling for the Warriors in the early afternoon when the men’s 4×800 relay team competed in the finals. On Thursday, the men snagged the eighth and final spot in the finals, and on Friday, the club made it worth it.
Andres Leon, Adam King, Jack Vanden Heuvel, and Jason Peterson earned All-American status on Friday after they finished the 4×800 in fifth place with a time of 7:36.20.
Peterson, the lone senior of the group, typically runs the second or third leg of the relay. On this occasion, however, in his final race as a Warrior, Peterson carried the team home.
“It’s such a pleasure to race with these guys,” said Peterson. “To not only have a strong bond, but race at a high level together is a privilege. It’s an honor racing with these guys and it’s an honor finishing in the top five at a national meet.
“In life you struggle, but having friends like this to walk alongside through thick and thin, it makes it all worth it.”
When asked if placing Peterson as the anchor was a sentimental decision, Smelley said, “For one, it was a strategic decision, but also letting Jason finish it off while knowing he would do a good job was great. It was nice to see him hold off that last runner and keep their place.
“The guys positioned themselves well and competed. They could have just settled for eighth, but they competed and earned their spot.”
Next up on the agenda for Westmont was the week’s main event: Zola Sokehla’s quest to repeat as national champion in both the 1500 and 800 meter run.
First, a little after 3:00 p.m. CDT, Sokhela was tasked with defending his 1500 title. Sokhela paced himself early on in the race, leading the pack ever so slightly while setting himself for a kick to win it. For the first 1100 meters Sokhela comfortably stayed with the pack, not wanting to be the first to make a move. Unfortunately, the sophomore waited about 100 meters too long to make his push.
There were only 200 meters left when Sokhela realized there were two men who had already hit turbo, and by the time Sokhela emptied his own tank, there was no time left to catch the others. With a time of 3:52.91, Sokhela earned All-American honors with a third place finish.
It was a bittersweet honor for Sokhela, who has run six 1500s under 3:49.00 in his collegiate career. The first-place finisher in today’s race completed the event in 3:51.57.
“I wanted to see the flow of the race and be the person who made the last move,” reflected Sokhela. “I was surprised to be in front so I slowed the pace down, but everyone responded and stayed behind me. I got a flashback of the 1000 at Indoors, where they just made a move out of nowhere. I just couldn’t respond to it.
“It was a good lesson learned about championship racing. I’m very disappointed obviously, but third place is not too bad.”
Following the bittersweet finish of the 1500, Sokhela had less than two hours before having to gear back up for the 800, which took place at 5:00 p.m. CDT. Then, in the final race of his sophomore campaign, Sokhela flipped the script.
After Sokhela made the mistake of leading the pack in the 1500, he decided to take a drastically different approach in the 800. At the end of the first lap, Sokhela was in dead-last. Then, lightning struck.
After a 57.35 400 to open the race, Sokhela dug deep and came out with a 53.69 final lap, the fastest lap of any competitor during the race. As the group took their final trip around the stadium the crowd’s murmurs grew to roars as Sokhela dashed his way past seven All-Americans and defended his national championship with a time of 1:51.04.
The second-place finisher came in sixth-hundredths of a second behind Sokhela, who made a season’s worth of hard work pay off in a storybook climax.
“After I finished the 1500 I told myself ‘I don’t know how I’m going to run the 800’,” began the champion. “I focused on recovering as best I could and then knew I had to give it a go. I didn’t want to make the same mistake of being up front, so I made sure I was in the back no matter what.
“Being able to close with a 53 after opening with a 57 was painful, but like I said earlier, that’s championship racing. I made the last move in the 800, and it won me the title.”
Sokhela adds himself to a list that includes Westmont legends Jean-Louis Ravelomanantsoa (’71-’72) and Dennis Savage (’70-’71), as well as Pieter Top (’18-’19), as the only men in program history to successfully defend a national title.
“There is a lot of pressure coming in,” said Sokhela, regarding his role as reigning champ. “Knowing the rest of the pack looks at you as the one to beat is tough. I can tell myself ‘it’s a new race, new year’, but it doesn’t change the fact that you feel that pressure. It’s good to go through that though, and discover how I cope with that mentally. With that, I think I did well.
“The pressure will only grow next season, but I’ll be a year stronger and more mature than I am now.”
The 2022 season came to an end for the Warriors when Kari Anema and Anneline Breytenbach took part in the women’s 5000 meter run at 5:30 p.m. CDT. Breytenbach posted a time of 19:22.79, finishing in 17th place. Anema, a freshman, was unable to finish the race.
At the end of the meet, the men’s team placed 13th out of 77 teams, while the women did not place.
After Russell Smelley’s 43rd season as head coach of the Warriors came to an end, the coach reflected on both the positives and negatives of this week’s experience.
“The 4×800 team really battled, and posted their best time of season,” said Smelley. “Each person contributed in different ways, so that was really fun. Zola came back from a difficult injury that happened just two weeks ago and it hampered him in the 1500.
“However, he showed his character and depth in the 800, which was really magnificent.”
In regards to some of the races that did not go as planned, Smelley said, “It is a learning experience for everyone. The thing is, you can choose to blame yourself or you can choose to learn from it. Hopefully, it’s a learning experience that will make them want to come back and do better next season.”
After taking the summer off, several Warriors will return to action in the fall when cross country begins. Then, come January 2023, the band will get back together for another season of Track and Field.
Jacob Norling is the sports information assistant at Westmont College.