Newbury Park Shifted At A Moment's Notice, Then Made History

When the phone call came in last Wednesday, Sean Brosnan couldn't have felt that much surprise. If the fall had taught the Newbury High School cross country and track and field coach anything, it was that everything was subject to change. To his dismay or not. 

But no one around Newbury Park could have been surprised, either, when things flipped on their head just a few hours later. Because if Brosnan was anyhing, he was persistent. 

Not 24 hours after that phone call canceled a record-breaking 5K attempt by a selection of Newbury Park athletes in Orange County, California, on Saturday, the race was back on, and so too was a crew of traveling athletes on the road toward their next destination. 

"I started making phone calls," Brosnan said. "We were able to get a facility and a timer. We had officials and everything set up." 

By early Friday morning, at 1:30 a.m., the team was in Mesa, Arizona, ahead of a newly rescheduled 5K performance on the track at Eastmark High School. It was swift reversal in fortunes. 

But if you knew this Newbury Park program well enough -- the record-setting, barnstorming corps that won Team Nationals in 2019 -- that wasn't anything new. When COVID-19 gave the Panthers a tough break -- the California Interscholastic Federation season was delayed until 2021, too -- Brosnan and Co. decided to roll with the punches the best way they knew how: By bootstrapping an entirely new plan. 

Races in October and November saw the Panthers win national-level competitions in style in Arizona and Indiana. 

Then, on Saturday, Brosnan and his group accomplished a feat no other track program had done in history, netting five boys under 14:50 for an outdoor 5K, a sixth at 15:17, and a female student-athlete at 17:04.86. 

Of course, with cross country in flux around the country, outdoor 5Ks had become more abundant, leading to impressive times based off cross country training. And in some ways, that contributed to the abnormal amount of success at the distance this fall. But regardless, few teams in high school history had ever chosen to run a full team on the track.

"I think it was good," Brosnan said. "I'm super proud of them." 

With junior Colin Sahlman leading the way with a new US No. 1 mark of 14:27.03, the Panthers netted national marks of US No. 2 with Lex Young (14:27.11), US No. 6 with Christian Simone (14:46.79), US No. 7 with Nicholas Goldstein (14:17.11), US No. 8 with Leo Young (14:49.99) and US No. 22 with Aaron Sahlman (15:17.25). Samantha McDonnell earned a US No. 6 mark on the girls side. 

"The truth is, they were bummed at first," Brosnan said. "We thought we were fitter than that. But it was the circumstances. Then the next day, when we were heading back ot California, we said to ourselves, 'You know what? This was a good performance.'"

Lex Young, in particular, landed the fourth-best sophomore performance of all-time, just behind names like Edward Cheserek (2011), Alex Maier (2017) and Aidan Puffer (2020). The Young's are the younger brothers of Nico Young, the 2019 Team Nationals champion who set an indoor 3,000m national record and broke 14 minutes in the 5K on the track in June.

Originally, the Panthers were assigned to compete on Saturday among a professional field of runners in a scheduled race at JSerra High School. But close to race time, Brosnan found that organizers did not want to have high schoolers on the line due to ongoing COVID-19 concerns and liability. 

So he quickly pivoted, calling contacts that he had made across his tenure at Newbury Park. In October, the team had traveled to Arizona for the Desert Twilight Invitational, where the boys had put together an impressive win against Bellarmine Prep (CA) and Great Oak (CA). One of his first calls was to timers and officials out in Arizona. 

By Thursday night, with a new destination and parameters lined up, the team was on the road. A Newbury Park parent drove a van with the team, while a convoy of cars followed. The next day, the team's athletes went through their online schooling, then got pre-race shakeouts on the track. 

The nonstop road trip took seven hours.

"We were going to do everything that was required," Brosnan said. "When the first race got pulled, we were like, 'We don't know what the future holds.' Some of my team were asking if we could do a 5K time trial. I was like 'No, let's get a real race in. Let the times count.'" 

By race time, adrenaline took over. 

Sahlman had bided through an injury midway through his season, only to come back for the XC Town Meet of Champions. While he didn't finish exactly how he would have liked there (Sahlman was 20th overall), the junior also later said he felt back to full health. With limited miles, he stepped to the line on Saturday and was a new runner. 

He took charge from the beginning, setting the pace from the jump. 

"The pace at the mile -- I think it was 4:40 or 4:42," Brosnan said. "And it was like, they knew they had to pick it up. So they did."

While a couple of mid-race laps were a little off, Brosnan said, the entire team found energy for the last few laps. 

"Lex and Colin, I don't know the last split," he said, "but it was close to 60 to 61 seconds. They were really booking it." 

As the only girl her accompanying 5K, Brosnan decided to put a few runners in McDonnell's heat to help pace her to a new PR. 

When reminded of the illustrious performance of his team this weekend, Brosnan brushed it off. 

"As a coach, it's hard for me to say this. And I'm not saying this just because it's my team," Brosnan said. "But we'll be better next year. We'll lose Nic and Christian, but we have guys right there. And our guys will be stronger." 

And yet, Brosnan was also aware of the moment. 

"We're in a groove and we have guys who believe in the program and they trust me," he said. "...that's where it is now. If you come into the program and you don't believe, you won't make it to the top. But it's a great atmosphere. The guys are all great friends. There's no drama. And they all have a goal. They don't want to be just good. They want to be great and the best ever." 

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