FLAGSTAFF – Tucked away among the Ponderosa Pines, in the crisp air signaling the approaching fall, one of the most accomplished teams in college sports mounted a historic NCAA title defense.
On the 4.5 mile course at the George Kyte Classic in Buffalo Park, the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks cruised to an easy team victory Saturday in their only home meet of the season with a final score of 15 points. NAU was propelled by efforts from senior Drew Bosley (21 minutes, 32 seconds) and juniors Santiago Gomez-Prosser (21:47) and Kang Nyoak (21:55), who finished in first, second and third place.
“It felt pretty good,” said Bosley, who is the NCAA record-holder in the indoor 3,000-meters. “I was pretty relaxed. The last 800 meters, I kind of let myself let the legs spin a little and take off, and that was the fun part. But it was real under control.”
Senior Theo Quax (4th place, 21:56) and sophomore Colin Sahlman (5th, 22:10) rounded out the top five for NAU. There was only a 38-second spread among the top five finishers for the team.
Since 2016, the Lumberjacks have been at the pinnacle of the sport as the school has won six of the past seven national championships.
NAU has put together two runs of three consecutive championships with a runner-up finish to BYU in 2019 sandwiched in between. Last year’s title win was the closest of the six, with NAU barely nudging out Oklahoma State on a tiebreaker 83(3)-83(2).
The recent streak of winning has placed NAU in rarefied air as it is attempting to win its fourth consecutive championship, which is something that has only happened twice before in the NCAA for men’s cross-country. And it hasn’t happened in quite some time. The collegiate record for most consecutive national championships in men’s cross-country is held by two schools: University of Texas at El Paso (1978-1981) and the University of Arkansas (1990-1993).
“To be honest, it’s not really talked about,” Bosley said about the record. “I didn’t even know that was a record. I knew there some teams who had historic stuff like that, but what I think does makes this team special is that we just kind of work, work, work and keep our heads down. And we lift our heads up at the end of the year, and we’re like, ‘Look at where we are.’
“If I could describe it, that’s the mindset. We’re in the phase of our heads down and we’re focused right now. For the next eight weeks, my whole world is Tuesday, Friday workouts, running morning runs, focused on my teammates. That’s my whole world.”
Entering the 2023 season, NAU is again a serious contender for the team title and will likely be a betting favorite heading into the national meet.
NAU has two of the top individuals in the entire country with senior Bosley and junior Nico Young. Those two are projected to finish in the top five at the NCAA championships, which would put the Lumberjacks in prime position to claim their seventh title in eight years.
Redshirt senior Theo Quax will most likely be the next man in the top five rotation for NAU, which will have to rely on its final three athletes to make history and win a fourth straight title as fellow competitors BYU, Oklahoma State University and Stanford University will also field very deep teams. Quax, a New Zealand native, is a solid runner to count on as he owns lifetime bests of 3:58.13 in the indoor mile and 13:29.35 for the outdoor 5,000 meters.
Although the meet Saturday was small in terms of overall schools in the race and there was not much competition at the front to push the Lumberjacks, Bosley said the team’s performance still showed him it is more than ready to compete for another national title. He called this year’s team “one of the deepest” he has seen during his time in Flagstaff.
“What today tells me that is that we’re going be very consistent from top to bottom,” Bosley said. “We’re going to be a challenge every time we step on the line. We’re not to make it easy for anybody and we’re going to make people hurt. I can’t say any outcomes, but I really do feel bad for the people that have to race us. It’s going to be hard.”
NAU will also look for improvement from sophomore Colin Sahlman, who was one of the top recruits from the 2022 high school class.
Sahlman ended his career as one of the most decorated prep runners ever with his times of 3:58.81 in the indoor mile (third-fastest in United States history) and 8:33.32 in the 3,200 meters (national high school record). For his senior year, Sahlman was named both the National Gatorade Player of the Year for cross-country and the Male Athlete of the Year for all sports.
With some of that weight lifted off his shoulders after a year of college under his beat, Sahlman is ready to take on his sophomore season.
“My first year, I definitely had a lot to learning to do, a lot of experiences,” Sahlman said. “My mindset this season is literally to just run with my teammates. I feel like we have a good little maybe four-person group that I can really run with and race with. So I think just sticking with them and running with them. I’m not going to worry about just trying to win stuff. I’m just going to run with my team.”
Joining Colin at NAU this year is his younger brother, Aaron, a highly respected runner who just graduated from Newbury Park High School in Southern California. Aaron was the individual champion at the 2022 Nike Cross Nationals, one of the top national meets for cross-country at the high school level, as he helped lead Newbury Park to a team title.
During the track and field season, Aaron nearly became the 20th high school athlete to break the four-minute barrier in the mile with his 4:00.30 at the Oregon Relays in April. It’s been a welcoming experience for the two brothers to be on the same team again after starring at Newbury Park together, which is also where teammate Nico Young went to school.
“It’s really fun running with him again,” Colin said. “I mean he’s in the dorms, I moved out, I’m in a house now, so we’re not living together. But I still help him out with stuff. He’s very early (in his) season. I think he started running maybe when he got up here, so I would say his performance today just based off that, he’s in a good spot. And with more work, he’ll be up there, too.”
Redshirt senior Brodey Hasty also figures to be a key component of the team’s title defense this season. Hasty has been a member of the past three championships teams, finishing in 25th place last year to earn an All-American spot. Juniors Santiago Gomez-Prosser and Kang Nyoak will be vital as well.
Next up for the Lumberjacks is a trip east to Charlottesville for the Virginia Invitational on Saturday, Sept. 23 at Panorama Farms.