SEAN BROSNAN IS NOT SHY when it comes to forecasting what his Newbury Park High School team can do. Those who don’t know the 44-year-old coach — or his powerhouse program from Ventura County, just north of LA — raised eyebrows when they heard him predicting a sweep of the top places at the Garmin RunningLane Championships in Huntsville, Alabama.
Then at the December race — the de facto national high school team championships in another year without the NXN finale —the Panthers came up with a 1-2-3-6-42 finish. The adjusted score, with non-team competitors removed, gave the team 29 points for a winning margin of 92.
The times on the advertised 5K course were beyond fast, and debate over course measurement rages on. Senior Colin Sahlman took the win in 14:03.29, followed by the Young twins, Leo (14:05.07) and Lex (14:05.49), junior siblings to Northern Arizona star Nico Young. In 6th came Aaron Sahlman, Colin’s junior brother, in 14:14.38. The No. 5 runner, Daniel Appleford, clocked 14:44.92. All 7 on the team broke 15:00.
Clockings like that cry out for perspective. For starters, in 5th place at 14:10.56 was Riley Hough (Hartland, Michigan), who a week later would win the Eastbay title.
Or look at their track times from last spring: Colin Sahlman (4:04.86 mile, 8:46.46+ for 8 laps); Lex Young (8:46.75+), Leo Young (4:07.66/8:58.93+), Aaron Sahlman (4:09.30), Appleford (8:59.89+).
Clearly, something big is happening in Newbury Park. That was abundantly apparent after Brosnan’s boys scored 16 points to win California’s State Meet, the elder Sahlman winning in 14:26.5. Close observers of the overland sport have been calling this the greatest prep cross country team in American history, an accolade that’s hard to dispute.
“We kind of felt we knew what we were capable of,” explains Brosnan. “It was just executing that plan, so I don’t want to say it was a surprise. It’s a little bit surreal now, but as the season was going, it was like, ‘OK, this is what our job is. This is what we’re going to do.’”
How can one school (enrollment 2400 or so) be so good? It sounds a bit like the perfect storm, albeit in a good way. Brosnan, who teaches business and entrepreneurship at the school, started coaching the program in ’16. The former Adams State runner (4:02.31 PR) says that the biggest key is the team’s focus on breaking mental barriers.
He raised more of those eyebrows when in an interview he opined that a 4:20 mile for a high schooler just wasn’t fast. “It kind of picked up steam and people commented about it and I said that my point is, you’ve got to stop setting these barriers.
“My true feeling is more guys in the U.S. should be breaking 13:00 in the 5000. There should be more guys in college running under 13:20 and there should be more high school kids that can break 14:00.
“I think we put those numbers in their heads and they think, ‘Oh, this is fast.’ I feel like we need to break those barriers down right away. In my program, we throw numbers out the door. It’s about putting in the work, doing all the little things and just making sure you don’t let those things set boundaries for you.”
The Newbury Park training itself isn’t based on any secret method, and indeed sounds like the routine followed by plenty of other programs. “We might do things a little different from most schools,” notes Brosnan, “but we probably do a lot of things the same.”
Mileage? “I think the most anyone on my team ran this season was 64 in a week. We follow a 10-day cycle, with a long run every 10 days. Our highest mileage weeks are usually in October, and we don’t really cut much from there.”
Intensity? “We try to hit all the systems all the time, all year. We do speed-developmental stuff year-round. You can’t be afraid to run fast in practice. There are certain workouts that give a team confidence.”
Coaching? “The art of coaching never gets talked about. To write a plan is easy: ‘This is what you need to do, this is your mileage, this is your long run.’ But actual coaching, you’re changing on the fly, changing plays constantly.
“If people saw our week in and week out, they’d realize how much change we do and how much adaptation we do for each kid. They’d be shocked. It makes a lot of work for me and my coaching staff, but it just caters to each athlete.”
Brosnan also notes that having a superstar such as Nico Young come through the program motivated other athletes to buy in to the philosophy.
“Now their bar is high. That’s what snowballed into my team. They want that success too. They saw what Nico did and they also saw how dedicated he was, his diet, his sleep and everything. He was the full package. And we had more kids buy into it because it wasn’t cool not to do the good stuff.”
Similar dynamics are taking place on the girls’ side at Newbury, which Brosnan started coaching in ’18. This fall, they placed 2nd at State and 8th at RunningLane. One of his assistants, incidentally, is his wife, Tanya, a former Div. II 10,000 champion for Queens University.
What does this level of distance excellence bode for the coming track season? “I think track’s going to be pretty darn good,” says Brosnan. “There’s going to be some big things. I honestly think I have four boys who can break 8:30 in the 3200. I think we could have around 7 guys under 9:00. Even the first few track workouts we did after cross country, it’s been pretty amazing to see what I believe they’re capable of.”
He adds, “I feel a lot of kids can be better than they think… It’s just opening their minds a little bit and believing.”