NEW ORLEANS — After another stellar season, the Westmont men’s track and field and cross country teams have continued to raise the bar.
Earlier this week, the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association announced Westmont’s men’s program as a top-10 NAIA program for the 2021-22 season.
The Warriors’ combined efforts from their cross country season in the fall, for both indoor and outdoor nationals, placed them as the ninth-best program in the NAIA Men’s Jack Hazen Program of the Year Award standings. The Warriors were the only Golden State Athletic Conference School to be listed in the final standings.
“As a whole, this group has rallied around (track athlete) Zola (Sokhela), performance-wise,” said Westmont Head Coach Russell Smelley, “But with that, they’ve molded themselves together as a unit. Obviously, Zola came in as the super-charger and pushed them to a higher level than they even imagined they could go.
“This season, they started to believe they could be great in their own right as well.”
The aforementioned Zola Sokhela headlined the 2021-22 season for the Warriors beginning in the fall with cross country. With a time of 25:00.8, Sokhela finished second overall in the GSAC Championships, setting the tone for the club that finished second overall behind The Master’s.
Joining Sokhela on the All-GSAC team at the conference race was the trio of Garrett Miller, Danny Rubin and Adam King, who finished seventh, 10th, and 11th, respectively.
At the NAIA Cross Country National Championships, Sokhela was the first Warrior to earn All-American status this season, as he claimed the 40th and final honor with a time of 25:54.4 in Vancouver, Wash.
Come the turn of the calendar year, the Warriors were well-represented at the NAIA Indoor National Championships in Brookings, S.D., in March. At Indoor Nationals, the Warriors earned seven All-American honors with Sokhela leading the pack with two thanks to a pair of top-three finishes in the men’s 1000 meter run as well as the mile.
Joining Sokhela in the finals of the 1000 meter run was freshman Jack Vanden Heuvel who dashed his way onto the scene in 2022. With a sixth-place finish in the prelims and eighth-place finish in the finals, Vanden Heuvel earned his first collegiate All-American honor in his first National Championship experience.
“Jack is a competitor,” said Smelley. “He just likes to race. He’s 18 years old and has all those things that come with being 18 years old, but he’s just a racer at heart. He throws himself into a race and sees what happens and I really like that about him. We need that kind of person.”
Westmont’s experience at Indoor Nationals was capped off by a memorable performance for the club in the 4×800 meter relay finals. In the 4×800 meter semifinals, Sokhela anchored the club’s race and helped the Warriors clinch a spot in the finals. Therefore, with only eight teams in the final race, if the club so much as completed the event, they would achieve All-American status.
The decision had been made prior that Sokhela would not race the finals of the relay in order to preserve energy for his individual races. With that, the 4×800 relay team consisting of Ben Bodine, John Baker, Andres Leon, and Adam King gave themselves a clear goal going into the race: they wanted to finish ahead of at least one team.
It came down to the final handoff, but King secured All-American honors for the quartet with a seventh place finish at Indoor Nationals. With a time of 7:52.35, King and company finished ahead of the eighth-place team by 0.32 seconds.
“Adam is a classic Warrior product,” said Smelley, reflecting on King’s sophomore campaign. “He’s been learning as he goes, and he came in this year needing to upgrade the way he thinks about racing. He’s been making great strides and he hasn’t missed a national race since being at Westmont.
“For Adam, the breakthrough was realizing that he’s better than he was when he first got here, and that he doesn’t have to be afraid to try.”
Smelley also wanted to ensure that the performance and growth of Bodine did not go unnoticed this year.
“Ben Bodine is a guy who came in, put his head downand got better by determination,” Smelley said. “Ben isn’t the most talented guy in the world, but he’s determined, and he is an All-American now. It’s those kinds of guys who turn it for us. You need guys like that to really complete a team, and for us, he’s been one of those guys.”
At Outdoor Nationals in May, a banged-up Warrior team mustered up enough strength to inspire Smelley and the Westmont community one last time this year. This time, the Warriors 4×800 relay team qualified for the finals without the help of Sokhela, earning the final spot in the preliminaries with a time of 7:35.42, the fastest 4×800 time by any Westmont team this season.
Then, in the finals of the 4×800, the men continued to raise the bar. After edging out just one team at Indoor Nationals, Leon, King, Vanden Heuvel and Jason Peterson earned All-American honors with a fifth-place finish in their final race.
For Peterson, the club’s lone senior competing in Gulf Shores, Ala., he went out as the team’s anchor and led Westmont to the fifth-highest peak on the podium.
The final plotline for the Warriors in 2022 was Sokhela and his attempt to defend his National Title in both the 1500 and 800 meter run, after sweeping both as a freshman last season.
In the 1500, an exhausted and worn down Sokhela made a crucial mistake in which he allowed the pack to stay with him, without making a push to take the lead until it was too late. Sokhela ran a time of 3:52.91, which was 10 seconds slower than the standard he’s proven to be capable of and was forced to settle for a third-place finish.
A disappointed and frustrated Sokhela had minimal time to process the mistake as the 800 meter finals were less than two hours after the conclusion of the 1500. Sokhela, who led the race and was jumped by others’ kicks in the 1500, made a bold decision going into the final race of his sophomore campaign.
“I made sure I was in the back no matter what,” said Sokhela.
After a 57.35 first lap, Sokhela was in dead last,and somehow, had the rest of the pack right where he wanted them. With a 53.59 final 400, Sokhela passed all seven runners ahead of him and defended his 800 National Championship with a time of 1:51.04.
Jacob Norling is the sports information assistant at Westmont College.