Just 800 meters from the finish line of the NCAA Division III Cross Country national championship race, Ethan Widlansky PO ’22 heard a voice yelling from the side of the muddy course.
“We’re in it to win!” bellowed Sagehens head coach Jordan Carpenter, in between refreshing the live updates of the race on his phone.
Minutes later, Widlansky, along with six other Sagehens, did just that, securing a historic national title by edging out perennial powerhouse North Central 164-182 on Nov. 23 in Louisville, Kentucky.
It was the first NCAA championship for any men’s sport in Pomona-Pitzer history and just the second for the entire athletic department.
“‘Surreal’ is the word I fell back on after it all played out, after I couldn’t quite synthesize what happened,” Widlansky said, who finished seventh in the nation individually and earned All-American honors. “Our assistant coach came up to us and was speechless. He was like, ‘We won!’… and it kind of cascaded from there.”
After the results were posted on a large screen at the finish line, the team began their celebration, jumping around and dousing Carpenter in Powerade in the middle of an interview.
Even for Carpenter, the win was somewhat of a shock. Earlier in the season, the Sagehens had a goal of earning a trophy at the national meet — by making it on the podium as a top-four finisher — but winning the title outright surpassed their wildest expectations.
“‘Surreal’ is the word I fell back on after it all played out, after I couldn’t quite synthesize what happened.” — Ethan Widlansky PO ’22
“We had never won a trophy in program history, so really [a podium finish] was the goal even going into the day before the national meet,” Carpenter said. “We went out and executed our race plan, and that put us in first place, so it’s a little bit of [a] surprise.”
Dante Paszkeicz PO ’22, Daniel Rosen PO ’20, Ethan Ashby PO ’21, Owen Keiser PZ ’22, Hugo Ward PO ’21 and Joe Hesse-Withbroe PO ’22 rounded out the top seven for P-P, which moved up gradually throughout the 8,000-meter race. The Hen harriers took the lead for good at the 6.4-kilometer mark but led Sixth Street rival Claremont-Mudd-Scripps by just 11 points.
The two Claremont teams had the chance to stun the nation by finishing 1-2, which would have been an unprecedented accomplishment for West Coast cross-country programs. But although Thomas D’Anieri CM ’20 impressed with a third-place individual finish, the Stags faded to sixth.
P-P’s victory, though unexpected in the moment, was the culmination of a decade-long process of building the program from a sporadic national meet qualifier to the most successful team in the country.
Tony Boston, who now serves as Pomona College’s associate dean of the college and coached the team from 2008 to 2016, said he worked to mold the program into a consistent performer, peaking with a sixth-place finish at the NCAA meet in 2015 — the highest until this year’s win.
“I think a part of it was a culture shift, moving more away from the individual … to seeing, more holistically, how can we develop as a team,” Boston said. “We actually set a goal to qualify for nationals as a team, not just once, but seeing [if we] can do this for consecutive years.”
Prior to Boston, the Sagehens had made the national championship meet just eight times in program history, including a 10th place finish in 1979. But they failed to qualify many other years, with gaps between 1982 and 1993, and again between 1993 and 2004.
“Many of those appearances, in my view, were episodic — relying on the talents of a small cohort to get the team across the finishing line,” Boston said. “However, once that cohort graduated … the program declined.”
Under Boston’s guidance, the team emphasized depth and made five consecutive national meets, paving the way for Carpenter to take over in the fall of 2017.
“I am convinced that the system in place now — team culture, recruiting, vision, high standards, accountability, training methodology — allows for sustained excellence,” Boston added. “Coach Carpenter has been masterful in expanding upon and advancing this work.”
As recently as 2015, Carpenter was a senior in college at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, and competed against P-P runners at the national cross-country meet. Just four years later, at the age of 26, he has been named the 2019 National Coach of the Year by the United States Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association.
“It doesn’t matter what you ran in high school as far as times and performances,” Carpenter said of the mentality he brings to the P-P program. “When you come here, every single guy on our team has the belief that they’re going to get better and that they’re going to be able to compete on the national stage.”
As the lone senior on the top-seven squad that raced in Louisville, Rosen has seen the program evolve over his four years.
“[Coach Boston] showed us that we can win and that we can make it to the national stage … and then Coach Carpenter built on the program that Coach Boston built to bring us a national title,” he said.
While the Sagehens understand the lengthy process it took to reach this point, they also recognize that the national title raises expectations for upcoming seasons.
“Coming back next year, there’s going to be a little bit of pressure to do as well as we did this year … but I think that can be a good motivating factor for a lot of people,” Keiser said. “There’s going to be a lot of people working hard to try to contribute, too.”
Paszkeicz, who placed 16th individually and earned All-American status, believes competing for a national title should become the norm for the program.
“The last few years, we’ve been right on the brink of being a podium-contending team, and I think we fell short actually the past couple years,” Paszkeicz said. “I don’t think this necessarily is a huge jump from where we’ve been to win a national title. … Going forward I think we’re going to maintain a lot of the same goals of being a podium-contending team.”
Widlansky, who won the West Regional meet the week before the NCAA championship, quickly emerged as the Sagehens’ top runner this season. He credited his teammates for helping him and the program reach such heights this season.
“In workouts, you’re not trying to beat teammates; you’re working with them,” Widlansky said. “It’s a really good environment … I think we just got a lot closer. In the race, you’re not just thinking about your own performance, but you’re [thinking], ‘I’m doing this for my teammates, my friends.’”
While national title expectations will weigh heavily on the shoulders of future Sagehens, right now the team is simply enjoying being a part of Pomona’s first national title in any sport since the 1991-92 women’s tennis team.
The Hens met with Pomona President G. Gabrielle Starr to be congratulated Monday and was also introduced at halftime during the P-P vs. CMS men’s basketball game Wednesday.
“It still really hasn’t set in,” Carpenter said, “just because not only did we surprise ourselves, we surprised a lot of the country.”