The UCSB track and field team got a glimpse at this year’s Big West Conference competition last weekend in Irvine during the Big West Challenge Cup, and apparently it liked what it saw. The women’s side defended its Challenge Cup title for the third-straight year, notching its record-setting sixth Challenge Cup victory, while the men finished in second place.

“We got off to a good start on the women’s side and never looked back,” Head Coach Pete Dolan said. “On the men’s side, ugh, it was just one letdown after another.”

Senior sprinter and last year’s Big West Track Athlete of the Year Kylie McCuen led the way for the Gauchos with two first-place finishes in the 200- and 400-meter dashes with times of 24.7 and 54.97, respectively. Her victory in the 400 was over the Big West leader, Cal State Fullerton’s Nancy Blake, who came in second with a time of 55.76.

“[McCuen] was on fire,” Dolan said. “She got the job done.”

The men struggled in the sprints with no one from Santa Barbara finishing higher than sophomore sprinter Max Bellissimo who finished third in the 400-meter dash with a time of 48.99. The Gauchos made up for their weaknesses in the sprints and throws by coming on strong in the distance events.

“That’s just how it’s been for the last ten years,” Dolan said. “We have some room to improve in the other areas. We just don’t have hurdlers; we have some throwers but there are definitely holes out there.”

In what in recent years has been Santa Barbara’s bread-and-butter event, the 800-meter run, the Gauchos are without last year’s stars Ben Armel and senior Tetlo Emmen. Armel graduated and Emmen is redshirting this season. In their stead, junior Mike Chavez and senior Scott McConville finished in second- and fifth-place, respectively.

“That was one of our big disappointments,” Dolan said. “McConville should have come in second.”

Chavez and McConville may have been a little fatigued for the 800 because earlier in the day they scorched the competition in the 1,500-meter run. The pair finished one-two with Chavez leading the way in 3:55.01 and McConville trailing close behind coming in at 3:56.29.

“Chavez and McConville, they’re the class of the conference right now,” Dolan said. “They’re supposed to go one-two.”

Sophomore distance runner Chris Ashley continued the strong Gaucho performance in the distance events by winning the 3,000-meter run with a time of 8:26.94.

The women were similarly impressive in the distance events with juniors Hadas Moser and Megan Lewis finishing second and third in the 1,500-meter run. Meanwhile, junior distance runner Stephanie Rothstein and senior distance runner Seanna Martin matched Chavez and McConville’s 1,500 with a one-two finish in the 3,000.

“For Seanna, that’s probably the most fun she’s had out there,” Dolan said. “[She] and Stephanie were great.”

The 3,000-meter steeplechase was productive for the Gauchos with sophomore Bethany Nickless lowering her school record and coming in first with a time of 10:42.21. The time is good enough to unofficially rank her seventh in the West Region and 21st in the country. On the men’s side, Micah Tyhurst breezed to the victory with a time of 9:15.71

“[Nickless’s performance] was big time,” Dolan said. “She had nobody to work with. She just said ‘I’m going to get a regional qualifier,’ and then went out and did just that.”

The day’s events were capped off by the 4×400-meter relay. McCuen led the team to victory with a scorching split of 54.1 to overtake Fullerton’s anchor and propel the Gauchos into first place. The men were not expected to do well, but shocked the field in an exciting race that they led until the final 50 meters. Sophomore sprinter Kai Glover and junior sprinter Justin Morgan had breakthrough performances with career-best splits of 50.1 and 48.4 to launch Santa Barbara into first place heading into the final leg against the toughest competition in the Big West.

“We had minor breakthroughs for Justin Morgan and Kai Glover,” Dolan said. “We ended up taking third, but we had it up until the final fifty. You had to be there but it was really exciting to watch, we weren’t supposed to do that well in that event.”