Top Recruit Colin Sahlman May Not Race for NAU This Fall

Mike Smith: “This is one of the most gifted athletes we’ve ever seen coming out of high school. … It’s probably on the more unlikely side that we are putting him out there [this fall] unless we just had a succession of green lights that things were just right.”

September 21, 2022

Colin Sahlman, the #1 recruit in the high school class of 2022 and winner of last year’s RunningLane Cross Country Championships, may not race for Northern Arizona University this fall.

Sahlman put together an incredible senior season at Newbury Park (Calif.) High School last year, running 3:56.24 in the mile (#3 all-time among US high schoolers behind Alan Webb and Jim Ryun) and 8:33.32 for 3,200 meters. In July, he was named Gatorade Male Athlete of the Year as the best high school athlete across all sports in 2021-22. But when it comes to racing this fall, NAU coach Mike Smith says he wants to be cautious and keep Sahlman’s long-term development in mind.

“This is one of the most gifted athletes we’ve ever seen coming out of high school,” Smith says. “I just want to make sure that whatever role I play in whatever his long future in the sport is, that we don’t just get greedy in the short term in thinking the first couple months of college are the end-all, be-all for him. … It’s probably on the more unlikely side that we are putting him out there [this fall] unless we just had a succession of green lights that things were just right.”

Most high school phenoms in Sahlman’s position have wound up racing cross country as true freshmen and most fared very well.

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Here is how some of the biggest studs over the 2000s have fared their freshman year in XC.

Year School Athlete NCAA result
2001 Colorado Dathan Ritzenhein 4th
2001 Michigan Alan Webb 11th
2008 Oklahoma State German Fernandez DNF (injured); 1st Big 12 XC
2011 Oregon Lukas Verzbicas DNS; 23rd Pac-12
2013 Oregon Edward Cheserek 1st
2015 Stanford Grant Fisher 17th
2020 Northern Arizona Nico Young 4th

And here is how the #1 XC recruit has fared recently:

HS XC Year
NCAA XC Result As Frosh
2020 Parker Wolfe 28th
2019 Nico Young 4th
2018 Liam Anderson DNC
2017 Aidan Troutner DNC
2016 Casey Clinger 24th
2015 Drew Hunter Went pro
2014 Grant Fisher 17th

Northern Arizona could certainly use Sahlman. With Abdihamid Nur turning pro, the Lumberjacks are in need of a fifth man, and while they are still NCAA favorites without Sahlman, he could provide a vital cushion at the unpredictable NCAA championships (and we’re certainly not limiting Sahlman to being their #5).

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It’s also worth noting that NAU was in a similar position just two years ago with Nico Young. Sahlman and Young attended the same high school, and each was the consensus #1 recruit in their high school school class. Young ran NCAAs and finished as the top man on NAU’s title team, taking 4th overall. And he proved to be necessary: had Young not run at NCAAs that year, NAU would have finished second behind Notre Dame.

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There are a couple of differences between Young and Sahlman, however. While Sahlman is a terrific cross country runner, he’s more of a speed-oriented athlete than Young, having run 1:48.07 for 800 meters last spring. When Sahlman races on the track for NAU, it will likely be in the shorter distances.

“If I had to guess right now, we keep him on the short end of things, at least early in college,” Smith says. “He’s going to get a lot out of just maximizing his speed development and then also learning how to race tactically through NCAA rounds.”

In addition, it can take time for freshmen athletes coming from sea level to adjust to training at Flagstaff’s 7,000 feet of elevation. While Young did race NCAA XC as a true freshman, NCAAs were postponed to March that year because of COVID, giving Young four extra months to adapt. It’s worth noting that Young did not compete at NAU’s lone race in the fall of 2020 — even though it would not have counted against his eligibility.

“It’s really hard to come in and make an impact on the Division I level when you’re 18 years old, even for really great high school athletes,” Smith says. “Women go from 5k to 6k, we go from 5k to 10k. Men go from 5k to 10k. The big thing is just making sure that our athletes can handle that distance and the training that’s required for that at our location at altitude.”

Northern Arizona faces its first big test of the 2022 cross country season at the Cowboy Jamboree hosted by Oklahoma State on Saturday, where the top eight teams in LetsRun’s preseason top 10 will all be competing.

Quick Take: Anyone remember what happened in 2004?

In 2004, there was another very smart NCAA coach — Jerry Schumacher — who had a stacked team and the #1 freshman recruit, 2003 Foot Locker champ Matt Withrow. Withrow was redshirted. Wisconsin lost NCAAs to Colorado 90 to 94 and people are still wondering, “Would Wisconsin have won if Withrow had raced?”

The results show if Withrow had finished 49th or higher in 2004, Wisconsin would have been the champion.

Was top 49 realistic for Withrow? Absolutely.

That winter, Withrow made the US senior cross country team and went to Worlds in France, where he beat Dathan Ritzenhein and was the #1 US finisher (60th). In the spring, he ran 13:35 and the next fall was 9th at NCAAs. He’d run NCAA XC three more times and never finish lower than 39th. Of course, that doesn’t mean he would have been top 40 as a freshman. There’s a big difference between being ready to go in November compared to February or March.

Let’s say Schumacher had run Withrow as a freshman and he hadn’t done well or gotten hurt. People would probably be blaming Withrow’s mediocre track career (he never broke 14:00 after his freshman year) on Schumacher being greedy. The reality is Withrow had a mediocre track career despite Schumacher being extremely cautious with him.

Rojo weighs in: Let Sahlman run

LetsRun’s Robert Johnson wrote the section below.

I understand why some think coach Mike Smith is in a tough spot. That being said, it’s really not that tough of a spot. Let’s not overthink things here. Colin Sahlman is a stud. He altitude trained in high school. Training for 5k HS XC isn’t that much different than 8k/10k in college. Thousands of kids do it every year. You can get freshmen ready without running them into the ground.

Train him properly, build him up, and let him race, particularly since if Sahlman is as good as expected he likely won’t use all of his eligibility at NAU anyway.

The reality is Sahlman is far better prepared for collegiate XC running than Cole Hocker was when he showed up at Oregon in 2019 as Sahlman ran way more mileage than Hocker did in HS. Hocker ran XC for the Ducks as a freshman and was 69th at NCAAs. 69th likely won’t help NAU in XC but the experience certainly didn’t ruin Hocker, who made the Olympic team less than two years later.

One other thought. Has it crossed anyone’s mind that Smith is just trying to take pressure off and lower expectations for Sahlman?

What do you think? Vote in our polls and then talk about Sahlman possibly redshirting this season on our world-famous messageboard / fan forum.

MB: Colin Sahlman may not race for NAU in 2022 – “It’s probably on the more unlikely side that we are putting him out there.”

If you were the NAU, would you redshirt Colin Sahlman?

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