The 2021 Newbury Park Boys Are the Greatest High School Cross Country Team in US History
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By Jonathan Gault
December 2, 2021
One of the reasons people love to argue about the greatest ____ ever is because there is rarely an objective answer. Kipchoge or Bekele? LeBron or MJ? Messi or Ronaldo? (Or, if you prefer: Pele or Maradona?) Who you pick in those debates depends on what you value, but each side can at least accept that there’s a reasonable argument to be made for the other guy. It’s no fun arguing about the greatest wide receiver ever when anyone with a pulse can figure out it’s Jerry Rice.
In the first two decades of the LetsRun.com messageboard, Greatest High School Boys’ Cross Country Team Ever was a LeBron-MJ argument. The 1993 Mead (Wash.) squad is the one that comes up most frequently, but there were arguments for 1972 Lompoc (Calif.), 1999 York (Ill.) or, more recently, the 2018 Loudoun Valley (Va.) team that posted a record low score of 77 points at Nike Cross Nationals.
This fall, the debate over the GOAT boys’ XC team has become a Jerry Rice argument. Which is to say, there is no argument. The 2021 Newbury Park High School boys’ cross country team is the greatest ever, and it’s not particularly close.
Led by two pairs of brothers — senior Colin Sahlman and junior Aaron Sahlman and twin juniors Leo and Lex Young (younger brothers of 2019 NXN champion Nico Young) — the Panthers first showed their might on the track last spring. At the famed Arcadia Invitational, NP had four guys break 9:00 for 3200m in the same race: Colin Sahlman (8:43), Lex Young (8:43), Leo Young (8:55), and Daniel Appleford (8:56). Aaron Sahlman didn’t run Arcadia but did run 4:08 for 1600m in May — as a sophomore.
All five of those guys returned this fall. Expectations were high.
“They want to be the greatest team ever,” says Newbury Park coach Sean Brosnan. “And that was the goal since June.”
They have delivered.
Let’s start with what Newbury Park did on Saturday at the California state meet at Woodward Park, where the Panthers scored 16 points to win the Division 1 title. That’s one point shy of a perfect score competing against the largest schools in the most populous state in the country. That should not be possible.
Yet the Panthers’ score is just one of a dozen dazzling markers of the team’s dominance this season. NP’s combined time for their top five runners was 73:25 (14:41 average for the 5k course), the best ever on a course that has hosted the California state meet since 1987. NP also has the #2 combined time in history, clocking 73:39 (14:43 average) earlier this year at the Clovis Invitational. Before this year, the record stood at 75:28 (15:05 average) by Newbury Park in 2019 — over 20 seconds per man slower. And remember, that 2019 NP team finished the season as national champions by winning at Nike Cross Nationals (NXN).
With a team average like that, the individual performances had to be spectacular. Here’s how Newbury Park’s top seven fared on Saturday.
|Runner||Year||Time||Overall place||Team place|
And here’s how Newbury Park’s top three rank on the all-time Woodward Park performers list.
|German Fernandez||14:24||2007||CA state meet|
|Colin Sahlman||14:26.5||2021||CA state meet|
|Leo Young||14:28.0||2021||CA state meet|
|Nico Young||14:28.5||2019||CA state meet|
|Lex Young||14:30.3||2021||CA state meet|
|Leo Daschbach||14:30.9||2019||Clovis Invite|
|Marc Davis||14:38||1986||Kinney West Regional|
Some context behind the other names on that list:
- German Fernandez: Ran 8:34 national 2-mile record that spring. Ran 3:55/13:25, won NCAA 1500, finished 11th in World XC junior race as a freshman in college.
- Nico Young: Won NXN with 14:52.3 meet record. Ran 7:56 national 3000m record that winter. Ran 13:24, 4th at NCAA XC as a freshman in college.
- Leo Daschbach: Ran 3:59 mile that spring.
- Marc Davis: Won Kinney (later Foot Locker, now Eastbay) Nationals in 14:38 — second-fastest HS time ever at Balboa Park. 1996 Olympic steeplechase finalist.
That’s three certified phenoms and a sub-4:00 miler. And yet, if you scored them (and every other high schooler who has ever raced at Woodward Park) against this year’s Newbury Park team, Newbury Park would be leading through three runners. Nico Young, an NXN champ, would be their third man (barely). That is insane.
Newbury Park vs. history
To get a sense of how the 2021 Newbury Park boys stack up historically, I called up Marc Bloom. One of the nation’s foremost authorities on high school cross country, Bloom published national team rankings from 1989 to 2003 in his Harrier magazine and has continued to follow the sport closely since the advent of NXN in 2004. When he weighs in on high school cross country, you listen.
“I just don’t think there’s any way to make a case for any school, anywhere to be as good as Newbury Park, or maybe even close to them,” Bloom says.
In the 15 years of his rankings, Bloom says the 1993 Mead squad stood out. Coached by Pat Tyson (Steve Prefontaine‘s roommate at Oregon and now the coach at Gonzaga University), that Mead team put two guys in the top 10 at Foot Lockers (their #5 qualified the following year). Their #1, Matt Davis, finished third at Foot Lockers behind two guys named Adam Goucher and Meb Keflezighi. Davis didn’t run outdoor track in the spring of ’94, but the rest of their top five did, logging times of 4:12/9:07, 4:11/9:07, 4:10, and 9:06 (full details here).
It was an incredible team, but Mead ran the same Woodward Park course at Foot Locker West in 1993 and averaged 15:28 compared to NP’s 14:41. Improved shoe technology, diet, and training techniques over the last 28 years likely accounts for some of that gap. Heck, 13 Newbury Park athletes spent a month this summer at altitude camp in Big Bear Lake — a benefit most college athletes don’t enjoy, let alone high schoolers. But it still seems hard to imagine all of those benefits are worth 47 seconds per man.
Bloom has compared Newbury Park to the great Fayetteville-Manlius teams of the 2000s and 2010s and the other powerhouses of the NXN era. None come close. No other school in history has rolled out an 8:43 guy as their #3 runner or an 8:56 guy at #5. Newbury Park is so good, so famous in California running circles that they’re asked to sign autographs after races.
“Is there any reason they shouldn’t be considered the best ever?” Bloom says. “You try and look for any statistic or information, perspective, meet results, this and that [to show that they’re not]. I couldn’t come up with anything.”
The 2010 FM women were damn good, too
In terms of boys’ cross country teams, this year’s Newbury Park squad is the all-time GOAT. However, if we throw girls’ teams in the mix, the 2010 Fayetteville-Manlius squad coached by Bill Aris may not be willing to concede the GOAT title to Newbury Park. The 2010 FM girls perfect-scored the largest division at the New York state meet, a race that included the eventual #2 team in the country, Saratoga Springs.
At NXN, FM scored a record-low 27 points. If all of the other teams at NXN had raced as a single team, the final score would have been FM 27, the rest of the country 30. Individually at NXN, FM’s top 5 went 2-4-6-16-29.
One final race
Newbury Park has already cemented its status as the greatest high school boys’ XC team of all time, but it has one race left on the calendar. On Saturday, Newbury Park will race many of the nation’s best teams at the Garmin RunningLane Cross Country Championships in Huntsville, Ala. There may not be as many top individuals at RunningLane as in a typical year at NXN, but teamwise, the fields should be somewhat comparable (NXN was cancelled for the second straight year).
“I think everyone is there,” Brosnan says. “I don’t think there’s any missing teams from the top 15, really.”
Once again, Newbury Park is aiming high. The Huntsville course is fast (the boys’ winning time last year was 14:26, while Jenna Hutchins set a national record of 15:58 to win the girls’ race) and Brosnan believes multiple guys on his team have a shot to break 14:10 — the high school record for a 5k cross country race, held by Dathan Ritzenhein.
“I think we could average in the low-14:20s on that course and that’s kind of the goal,” Brosnan told MileSplit. “And I’ll say it: we’re going to try to go 1-2-3-4 out there.”
It’s an ambitious goal, but not unattainable. According to Bill Meylan‘s speed ratings, the three best cross country performances of the fall all belong to Newbury Park runners: Colin Sahlman and Leo Young’s runs at the California state meet earned 202 ratings, with Lex Young coming in just behind at 201 (by comparison, Connecticut’s Gavin Sherry earned a 200 for his 15:05.8 5k course record at Van Cortlandt Park). Aaron Sahlman’s run at the Woodbridge Classic in September was worth a 196 according to Meylan, which ranks 10th nationally this fall, but two of the guys ranked ahead of him aren’t running at RunningLane. 1-2-3-4 is on the table.
Where the top 10 high school boys will be racing this postseason (speed ratings courtesy Tully Runners)
|Athlete||Best 2021 speed rating||Postseason plans|
|Colin Sahlman||202.2 (CA state)||RunningLane|
|Leo Young||201.7 (CA state)||RunningLane|
|Lex Young||200.9 (CA state)||RunningLane|
|Gavin Sherry||200.1 (Eastbay Northeast)||Eastbay nationals|
|Marco Langon||199.0 (NJ state)||Eastbay nationals|
|William Zegarski||197.7 (OH state)||RunningLane|
|Riley Hough||197.6 (Portage Invite)||Both|
|Jackson Barna||196.7 (NJ state)||RunningLane|
|Zane Bergen||196.1 (CO state)||Both|
|Aaron Sahlman||195.9 (Woodbridge Classic)||RunningLane|
Because RunningLane and the Eastbay West Regional are both on Saturday, Newbury Park had to choose which meet to attend. Had the Panthers opted for Eastbay, they could have made history: no school has ever qualified four boys for Kinney/Foot Locker/Eastbay nationals. Kingwood (Tex.) had three in both 1993 and 1994, while on the girls’ side, Saratoga Springs qualified four in 2004.
So why did NP decide on RunningLane?
“We just don’t look at a cross country championships as being 40 people,” Brosnan says. “I know they have tradition. It was Kinney, Foot Locker, and now Eastbay, which was all the same meet. But once NXN started, they created an actual cross country championship with 200 people in it like a real NCAA-style meet. And I think that is such a good thing and such an important thing for these kids to experience.
“They didn’t budge. When I sat with the team as soon as NXN got cancelled and said what do you guys want to do, they wanted to run equivalent to NXN.”
Looking ahead to the track
One of Brosnan’s core beliefs is not to put limits on his athletes. That, along with his athletes’ dedication and talent, is one of the key reasons he believes Newbury Park has had so much success this fall.
Brosnan is also not afraid to speak his mind (you may have heard the interview in which he says “4:20 is not fast for a high school mile”). So what can Newbury Park do on the track in 2022?
Two years ago, Nico Young’s senior season was cut short due to COVID, but he still managed to run 7:56.97 for 3,000 meters indoors, breaking Drew Hunter‘s national record. Brosnan believes that had Young had a full outdoor season, he could have run 8:25 for 3200 meters. Brosnan says that, in terms of attitude and confidence, Nico “definitely had something special.”
“If I told him to throw down a 4:10 at the beginning of a workout, he would do it,” Brosnan says. “These guys, they’re a little bit more hesitant on just really doing that crazy thing sometimes in a workout.”
But in terms of what they can run on the track, Brosnan believes he has “three or four Nico’s” on his team right now.
“There’s no reason I can’t have four guys under 8:30 [for 3200],” Brosnan says.
Only one high schooler in history has run that fast — Lukas Verzbicas ran 8:29.46 for two miles (3219 meters) in 2011. It’s an enormous expectation to heap upon a group of teenagers who have already established themselves as high school cross country legends. But based on what they’ve done this fall, why wouldn’t they believe it?
“I think it’s my job and our job as coaches to take the barriers away from these kids and stop letting them think what fast is,” Brosnan says. “That’s something that I’ve really tried to have these kids learn from day 1, and they’ve done a great job of really accepting it.”
Talk about this article on the world-famous LetsRun.com fan forum / messageboard. MB: Sean Brosnan: “And I’ll say it: we’re going to try to go 1-2-3-4 out there..There’s no reason I can’t have four guys under 8:30.” Did you know we have a HS only forum?
From the archives: 2020: Podcast: Sean Brosnan, Coach of Nico Young + Tokyo Olympics Cancelled + Greatest American Runner of All-Time
2010: Track Talk With Fayetteville-Manlius And Stotan Track Club Coach Bill Aris