It was a long 28-year drought for the Western Mustangs men's cross country team, as the Guelph Gryphons and Windsor Lancers dominated the province en route to a combined 22 Ontario University Athletics titles during that period.
But on Sunday at Centennial Park in Toronto, the Western Mustangs returned to the top of the OUA with a vengeance, bringing home the seventh provincial championship in the program's history.
The Mustangs took down Windsor and 11-time reigning champion Guelph Gryphons with a solid performance from all seven of their runners. Western had 53 points in the event, while Windsor finished in second with 60 points and Guelph took home the bronze medal with 72 points.
The Mustangs were led by Jack Sheffar who placed third overall with a time of 30:48.5 while Ben Carson finished sixth overall with a time of 30:57. Chris Balestrini finished out the Mustangs top three with a time of 31:04.7 and an eighth place finish.
Head coach Guy Schultz saw the performance of his top three runners as vital in the Mustangs taking home the OUA banner.
“In cross country, especially at OUA’s and [Nationals] you’re not gonna win a team championship unless you have some really strong individuals on your team," said Schultz. "So having one or two is really good but having three is amazing.”
OUA Rookie of the Year Muhumed Sirage had a strong final two kilometres of the race, picking off competitors and playing a key role in the Mustangs championship while finishing 15th in the race with a time of 31:72.1.
“Muhumed made a huge difference because with 3k to go we were in second place and Mo picked up five or six guys that helped us win the championship in the end," said Shultz on his rookie's performance. "Muhumed has been a great addition to the team; he was Rookie of the Year and a lot of teams would have picked him up across the country cause he’s that good and that talented."
Although only the top five individual times for each team go toward the overall score, Schultz was impressed with his sixth and seventh runners who competed admirably. All of the Mustangs runners finished in the top 25.
"It’s amazing to be able to count on all of your seven runners," said Schultz. "Only five count in the team score but to have seven as strong as we did, our seventh guy was 25th overall and our sixth and seventh runners displaced the fifth runners of a couple other teams which actually pushed their score up so in the end they helped us get a few points."
The Mustangs came into the OUA championship ranked sixth in the nation and third in the province behind Guelph and Windsor. According to leading Mustang Jack Sheffar, who put together a dominant season for Western, the Mustangs had the firm belief that they could compete for the OUA title.
“It’s been 28 years since Western last won OUAs so it feels really good," said Sheffar. "Obviously all the guys are really excited and we had the goal at the beginning of the year that that was something we wanted to achieve and whether or not other schools or other people believed in us we had that belief around the team that we would get it done.”
The Mustangs now move forward to the U Sports championships in Quebec City on Nov. 12. While Western is looking to compete for the national title, the stiffer competition will provide a tougher challenge for the Mustangs.
"We’ll be up there at [Nationals] but it’s gonna be tough," said Schultz. "Even though we beat Windsor and Guelph we only won the race in the last two kilometres so you never know what could happen in a cross country race and there’s some other strong teams out there like Laval, Victoria and Trinity Western who are all very good teams and they’re probably just as deep as us. "
The course in Quebec City is also a difficult one to run under difficult conditions and fickle mid-November weather.
"The other thing that will come into play is the course because when we go to Quebec City for Nationals there’s usually snow and rain and its pretty muddy," said Schultz. "And the women run first, the men run second and it’s even muddier for the men on the course and the last time we went in 2010 or 2011 it was minus eight so the conditions will play into the race as well so the guys will need to be mentally ready.”
For now the Mustangs will celebrate their OUA title and the ending of a drought. The fact that they defeated Windsor and Guelph en route to the championship makes it all the more sweeter,
“It feels amazing to be able to beat Windsor," said Schultz. "But even more so Guelph because they had all those running championships in a row and they’re a very talented team."