Perfection with a look for Adams State
In 1992, flawless championship performance had hint of destiny
There are about a thousand meters to go in the 1992 NCAA Division II Cross Country Championship, and Adams State’s Jason Mohr is hurting.
Feeling “pretty crummy,” he says.
Four teammates -- and only them -- are ahead of him, but he begins to drop back.
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“Sixteen points, that’s still pretty good,” he thinks to himself.
But then comes the stare of a sideline spectator in Missouri Southern State gear -- a look Mohr will never forget. The man’s expression is clear:
Get up there!
Three minutes later, Mohr had responded, gutting out a fifth-place finish behind his four teammates to cap off the one and only championship perfect score (15) in NCAA cross country history.
“It was really an honor to be a part of that team,” said Mohr. “With all the records that have been set, this is one that can never be broken.”
Mohr wasn’t the only one hurting before history was made. In the lead during a “sloppy, muddy climb” near the five-mile mark of the 6.2-mile (10K) race, David Brooks also began to feel it, seeing his teammates catch up to him with Phil Spratley of archrival Western State in close pursuit. But as with Mohr, the heart of Brooks would have nothing of playing from behind.
“At that point, I remember thinking there was no way I was going to let myself fall off the back of that group. I was not going to allow them to get away.”
Brooks would finish third in 32:26, just two seconds off the pace in a race that witnessed Adam State’s top five runners all finish in a four-second span, also an NCAA record. Yet if anyone was hurting and had to withstand the pain, if anyone suffered hardship, if anyone willed himself to the finish line on that November day, it wasn’t Brooks or Mohr; it was 1992 champion Phil Castillo.
Just one week before the championship race, Castillo received a call from his mother in Acoma Pueblo, N.M., saying that his grandmother, with whom Castillo “spent 90 percent of his childhood,” had fallen severely ill. The decision to leave easy, he made the four-and-a-half hour drive from Adams State College in Alamosa, Colo., to his Native American family’s village, where he spent late nights attending to his grandmother before she passed away. With a week of no sleep and his grandmother’s burial set for after the team’s flight to Pennsylvania, Castillo had no inclination of joining his squad for the finals. At least not until his grandfather gave him an unforgettable look of his own.
“From the moment I arrived home until I left, I didn’t run a step because that wasn’t my priority,” said Castillo. “I had no plans of leaving my grandfather there at home. But he pulled me aside, looked me in the eye, and said, ‘Go and win.’ That moment still gets me every time I think about it.”
The drive back to Alamosa took 10 hours. Every 15 minutes, Castillo had to get out and run around the car to keep himself awake. When he finally arrived late the night before the outgoing flight, he told Peter De La Cerda, second-place finisher in the race and Castillo’s roommate at the time, to pack his bag for him and wake him up in the morning so he wouldn’t miss the plane.
“Without Peter, there’s no way I would have made the flight. He did everything I asked of him,” said Castillo.
In Pennsylvania, the heavens had opened to drop buckets of rain on Cooper’s Lake Campground Course, making the track a muddy mess. So muddy and so wet, in fact, that two or three miles into the race, Castillo -- who calls his vision “anything but legal” -- tossed his fog- and mud-covered Coke bottle glasses aside. Half-blind, he began to pass runners one at a time, simply focusing on the blurred jerseys in front of him until the five-mile mark, when all of those jerseys were Adams State green. When the runners came up on a steep downhill slope in the last mile, Castillo shot off “without any regard for falling.”
“I remember being amazed at how fast Castillo and De La Cerda were going down that wet hill,” said Brooks. “I tried to get between them, but they just hit another gear and took off.”
Then in a final 100-meter straightaway, Castillo felt like he was given a slight lift over the grass, running with little to no water splash. He edged out De La Cerda by a stride for the title, fulfilling his grandpa’s words despite claiming to have the seventh-best sprinting speed of Adams’ seven runners at the meet. Mohr beat out Spratley by five seconds to secure the top-five sweep for ASC.
Castillo broke down immediately after the race.
“I crossed the line and started crying once again because of the emotions of that race that day. It still gives me the chills because I remember it so well.”
When Castillo and Co. finished, they didn’t immediately realize what they had done. Of the team’s runners, only Paul Stoneham, the fourth-place finisher, had a real mind for running statistics and records. What they did realize was that they had won a team championship in their first year in the NCAA -- a win not just for themselves, but for their school, for their families and friends, for all previous Adams State runners, and even for the doubters who didn’t think tiny 3,500-student Adams State could compete in Division II after moving from the NAIA. Or in Castillo’s case, for a lost family member. All of this was a part of the philosophy of legendary coach Joe Vigil, who led his ASC men’s squads to 14 national titles, including seven consecutive NAIA crowns from 1983-89.
“That was the thing with Coach Vigil; he always stressed that when you run, you don’t represent just yourself, but all the guys who ran before you, all your teammates who didn’t make the trip, and everyone who helped along the way,” remarked De La Cerda.
What few know is just who from Adams State was not on this particular trip. Left off the seven-man roster for the 1992 championships were Martin Johns, who ran for New Zealand in the 1996 Olympic Games, and Dan Caulfield, Ireland’s current national record-holder in the 800-meter run (indoor). Another future Olympian, Shane Healy, ran in the 1992 race but didn’t finish in the top five. The depth of this particular team was so great that none of the runners were terribly surprised when the perfect score was achieved, or when Castillo, who hadn’t won a race all season, came out on top.
“There must have been 14 or 15 guys that year who could have been in the top seven,” said De La Cerda. “It seems like every time out we had a different top finisher. That’s the sign of a great team.”
It may be a shade over 19 years since the perfect score race, but the runners still relish reflecting back -- and are by no means shy about it. An interview-requesting email sent to Brooks, who is working on a Ph.D. in history at the University of Montana, was returned with a phone call in less than 60 seconds, while one sent in the evening to Castillo, an Army officer stationed some 7,600 miles away in Kandahar, Afghanistan, garnered a four-page response by morning.
“Our team in 1992 was simply amazing. I'll never forget that experience as long as I live,” claims Castillo.
Given one last question, one could see the eyes of the ‘92 squad light up even through the phone. Would Adams State have been able to beat Division I titlist Arkansas that year? Vigil’s bunch hints at a yes, and the facts suggest the possibility. ASC had beaten national runner-up Wisconsin handily at the Gopher Invite earlier that year, and Adams State and Arkansas had each defeated Lubbock Christian, the NAIA champ, by the same nine-point margin in separate meets. A head-to-head matchup wasn’t to be, but one can’t help but wonder.
“I like to think we would have given them a run for their money,” said Mohr. “But they were studs.”
Reflecting on the perfect score, it seems the Adams State runners were studs, too.
The NCAA Stats at 75 series will be published weekly through May and will include interesting statistical championship stories and all-time great performances.