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Newbury Park boys’ runners chasing history at indoor meet

Newbury Park runners at Southern Section cross-country preliminaries.
Newbury Park runners at Southern Section cross-country preliminaries last fall are Aaron Sahlman (left), Leo Young, Colin Sahlman (behind), Zaki Blunt, Daniel Appleford and Lex Young.
(Dylan Stewart / PrepCalTrack)

If you want to run fast, forget about setting goals based on times.

That attitude has catapulted the boys’ distance program at Newbury Park High to achieve results beyond any other school in the U.S. — ever.

The Panthers are so good that — barring something unforeseen — they could lop 30 seconds off the national high school record in the boys’ indoor four-mile relay when they run in the New Balance Nationals Indoor Meet at the Armory in New York City on Saturday.

“That mindset has really evolved and developed over these last three to four years,” said senior Colin Sahlman, Newbury Park’s top runner. “It’s just like it’s transformed into something that we never thought was possible. Now we think anything’s possible.”

It’s easy to see why.

During the 2021 track season, Newbury Park became the first U.S. high school to have four boys break 4 minutes 10 seconds in the mile in the same year and to have four runners run 3,200-meter times that were equivalent to a sub nine-minute two mile.

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To put those accomplishments into perspective, previously only one high school team in the U.S. had ever had three runners notch sub-4:10 miles in one season, and just two teams had had three runners achieve sub-9:00 two-mile marks.

Newbury Park followed its superb 2021 track season with an unprecedented cross-country campaign that was even better.

Consider: The Panthers’ average score in five major meets was a ridiculously low 21 points, and their average margin of victory over the second-place team was 114 points.

They swept the first six places in the Division I race of the Southern Section Championships and took the first four in the California Interscholastic Federation State Division I final, Clovis Invitational and Woodbridge Classic.

Newbury Park totaled a minuscule 16 points — one shy of the fewest possible — in the state meet.

Colin Sahlman, center, led Newbury Park to a 1-2-3-4 finish in the Division I final of the California state cross-country championships in November.

The following week they topped that performance in the Garmin RunningLane Championships in Huntsville (Alabama) when their top four runners placed first, second, third, and sixth in a race that included many of the country’s top teams and individuals. The time gap between the No. 1 and 5 runners on the team was 42 seconds, three seconds better than in the state meet.

“We know how to perform on race day,” said junior Lex Young. “It’s rare that we don’t execute how we should. A lot of that comes down to the hard workouts we do in training that prepare us well for races.”

Lex Young and his twin brother, Leo, and Colin Sahlman and his junior brother Aaron, will comprise the Newbury Park foursome that is expected to obliterate the national high school indoor record of 17:01.81 in the four-mile relay — set by Loudoun Valley High School in Purcellville, Virginia, in 2019 — in the New Balance meet.

Colin, who has signed a national letter of intent with Northern Arizona University, capped Newbury Park’s stupendous cross-country season by winning the Garmin meet with a scorching 14:03.29 clocking over the flat 5,000-meter course while being pushed all the way to the finish line by Leo and Lex Young.

Newbury Park has continued its phenomenal roll during track season.

On February 5, Colin Sahlman became the fourth U.S. high school runner to break four minutes in the mile indoors when he ran 3:58.81 to win a race against open and collegiate competitors in the Dr. Sander Columbia Challenge at the Armory.

In the same meet, Lex Young and Aaron Sahlman placed fourth (7:57.06) and eighth (8:01.72) in the men’s invitational 3,000 to move to second and fourth on the all-time national high school list.

Two weeks later, Colin Sahlman clocked 8:33.32 in the 3,200 in a Sundown Track Series meet at Azusa Pacific University to move to fourth on the all-time national list in that event. Leo and Lex Young finished second and third in 8:39.57 and 8:43.93 in the Sundown meet, and Aaron Sahlman won the mile in 4:05.00.

Newbury Park Coach Sean Brosnan is pleased with the way his charges have started the season but is making bold predictions about the future.

He anticipates Colin Sahlman could challenge the national high school outdoor record of 3:53.43 in the mile, Aaron Sahlman could break 4:00, and the Sahlmans and Youngs could all run under 8:34 in the 3,200 in the Arcadia Invitational at Arcadia High on April 9. In addition, he feels a fifth Newbury Park runner could break 8:50 at Arcadia and two more could dip under 9:00.

For someone who encourages his runners not to set goals based on time, Brosnan isn’t afraid to talk about various barriers he thinks they can break. The habit goes back to his collegiate running days at Adams State College, he said, when his old coach would often say, “Let’s rewrite the record books.”

“That didn’t always mean going for national records, but when we ran a race it meant we wanted to do something that had never been done before in that meet,” Brosnan said.

Northern Arizona standout Nico Young, who led Newbury Park to the Nike Cross Nationals title as a senior in 2019, said Brosnan wants his runners to approach races with a curiosity to see how fast they can run.

“That is so much better than setting a limit on yourself or shooting for a specific time you want to run,” he said. “It just brings a much better energy to the race. You’re there looking to see what you can do, versus I have to do this or this is all I am going to be able to do. It’s a much better mentality.”

Nico, the older brother of Leo and Lex, was an incoming 5-foot, 100-pound freshman who had run a good — but not great — 5:02 in the 1,600 as an eighth grader when Brosnan took over the Newbury Park boys’ cross-country program in 2016.

He remembers the pre-season meeting with runners and their parents when Brosnan said the team would win a state title within four years.

Newbury Park had not qualified for the state meet since 2000, but Brosnan felt strongly that high schools with student enrollments (2,400) as large as Newbury Park’s should contend for state titles on a regular basis.

“I get in trouble for saying this, but I don’t think most high schools do all the little things you need to do to be good,” he said. “If you have a coach who is super dedicated, I’m not saying you would win nationals or be as good as we are, but I think you could be a top program. Because I know other coaches I have friended over the years and they don’t always have the most talented teams, but they’re always a top national program.”

Nico Young, who set an American Junior (under 20) record of 13:22.59 in the indoor 5,000 in December, is the runner who laid the groundwork for Newbury Park’s current dominance.

He won state Division II cross-country titles in 2018 and ’19 to lead the Panthers to the team crowns, and won the 3,200 in the 2019 state track and field championships during a season in which he ran a nation-leading 8:40.00 in the event.

He was not able to race much outdoors in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, he did set a national high school record of 7:56.97 in the indoor 3,000 — before COVID-19 took hold in the U.S. — and later ran 13:50.55 in the 5,000 outdoors to move to fourth on the all-time national high school list in that event. Senior teammate Jace Aschbrenner ran an outstanding 8:44.93 in the 3,200 that year.

“Nico had this inner desire to be the best at what he did,” Brosnan said. “He set the precedent and showed our kids what was possible because he was so dedicated… Now our kids come in and expect to run fast like him.”

Nico Young races ahead of the filed during the Southern Section Division 2 championships.
Nico Young races ahead of the filed during the Southern Section Division 2 championships in 2019 when he was a senior at Newbury Park.
(Raul Roa / Daily Pilot)

Nico, who will compete in the 3,000 and 5,000 in the NCAA Division I Indoor Championships on Friday and Saturday, said Brosnan’s commitment to his runners knows no bounds, and his knowledge of the sport is another strength.

“He ran semi-pro for a while and knows a lot of people in the running world,” Nico said. “He also knew how to train us. He could coach professional athletes and probably help them make the Olympic team. He knows so much and he cares so much.”

That caring can take many forms, from reminding his charges to get a proper amount of sleep each night, to making sure their blood iron levels are good, to telling a kid to call it a day if he sees a hitch in their stride during a workout, to holding strength and stretching sessions before school three mornings a week to prevent injuries.

All of those things have played a part in Aaron Sahlman cutting 43 seconds off his mile best since coming to Newbury Park. So has Brosnan’s habit of designing individual workouts for his runners.

“I never thought I could be this good, or have a coach who individualizes workouts that fit you perfectly,” he said. “Very rarely does each of us do the exact same workout. We’ll all have different modified workouts, and I think that is key.”

Lex Young ran notable times of 4:45 in the 1,600 and 10:09 in the 3,200 in eighth grade, but never imagined he would be one of the top high school runners in the country.

“I remember thinking I was fast,” he said, “but on a small scale such as winning races in our county. I never knew how much farther I could take it.”

Leo Young, who had a best of 4:56 in the 1,600 in middle school, said he has not been that surprised with his race results because of the diligent training he and his teammates put in.

“Sean makes sure we don’t set mental barriers for ourselves,” he said. “Then when we jump on the track for a hard workout and he says to go for these times for this many reps, something we’ve never done before, we just believe and we do it. Those workouts show me what I’m capable of and that gives me the confidence to go into a race and kill it.”

The Youngs and Sahlmans, who all live in Camarillo just north of Newbury Park, agree that another Brosnan asset is his tenacity when it comes to getting them in races where they will have the best opportunity to run fast.

Nico Young poses for a photo with twin brothers Leo (left) and Lex.
Nico Young (center) poses for a photo with twin brothers Leo (left) and Lex.
(Eric Sondheimer / Los Angeles Times)

One of the most impressive things about the Newbury Park program is its relative youth.

Jack Shepard, the longtime boys high school editor of Track & Field News, said Brosnan has done a nice job of not over racing his charges. That leaves them fresh for those competitions when they put the pedal to the metal.

Shepard says Newbury Park reminds him of two other great high school distance programs, both from the 1970s.

The first was Lompoc High, located a few miles inland from the central California coast. The second was from Hammond, Indiana, situated in the northwest corner of that state.

Lompoc seniors Alvin Gilmore and Terry Williams ran 4:08.2 and 4:08.4 in the mile in 1973, and Williams also ran 8:54.8 for two miles. The following year senior Jim Schankel ran 4:09.1 in the mile and 8:57.0 in the two-mile.

In 1975, Hammond became the first high school in the U.S. to have three runners break nine minutes in the two-mile in the same season when junior Rudy Chapa ran 8:51.0, and senior teammates Tim Keough and Carey Pinkowski clocked 8:52.8 and 8:56.2 to rank third, fifth and ninth on the yearly national list.

Newbury Park’s runners might not have heard of the individuals listed above, but they are aware of the historical significance of their program.

“Knowing you are part of something that’s never been done before is really special,” Lex Young said. “It’s awesome, and having this many good guys on one team can really elevate you. We’re all very proud of what we have accomplished and also super stoked about what we can continue to do. Because it’s all about pushing the idea of boundaries and what is fast.”

Colin Sahlman agreed. “It’s really crazy that some people are saying Newbury Park is the best high school team, ever, regardless of sport,” he said, adding it’s “really special because we’re going to be talked about for a long time.”

One of the most impressive things about the Newbury Park program is its relative youth. Colin Sahlman and Daniel Appleford, who has run 8:56.77 in the 3,200, are the only two seniors among its top seven runners.

In addition to the Youngs and Aaron Sahlman, sophomore Dev Doshi and junior Hector Martinez have run 9:09.40 and 9:10.95 in the 3,200.

“By season’s end and given the right conditions, they will run times, both individually and as relay teams, that will boggle the mind,” Shepard — of Track & Field News — wrote in an email in response to my questions about Newbury Park.

“With only Colin Sahlman graduating from their top four runners, the beat will continue next year with Aaron Sahlman and the Young twins leading the way.”

For Brosnan, those comments from a keen observer of the scene are a sign the Newbury Park program has truly arrived. Back in his first season at the school, he told someone he wanted the program to become so good that people would ask, What in the world is Newbury Park doing?

“People are finally saying that,” Brosnan said.

John Ortega is a former Los Angeles Times sportswriter who has launched a digital publication called “Track & Field Informed with Johnny O” (trackandfield.substack.com).


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