Story Date: Wednesday, December 13, 2023 The Pomona-Pitzer men's cross country team hoists the NCAA Division III championship trophy after winning the Nov. 18 title race at Big Spring High School in Carlisle, PA. Photo by: Aaron Gray
For the seniors on Pomona-Pitzer’s men’s cross country team, the path to the 2023 NCAA Division III National Championship began four years ago—in Oregon, Denver, Northern California and Pennsylvania.
As first-year Sagehens in fall 2020, when colleges and universities nationwide transitioned to distance learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the student athletes spent their would-be maiden season scattered across the country, looking for places to race independently.
Most of the class of 2024 lived together in Oregon that fall—away from home for the first time—where they learned how to balance schoolwork and training with no coaching staff around to keep them honest.
Weekly Zoom sessions that first semester of college kept the dispersed classmates connected virtually, but it wasn’t until they moved into a house in North Carolina the following spring that they truly began to bond.
“That’s when I realized we had a really strong team culture,” says Derek Fearon ’24. “I realized then we had something special.”
After competing sporadically in independent races during their nomadic first year of college, the teammates arrived on campus in fall 2021 as sophomores.
With the one-year hiatus from NCAA competition behind them, Fearon, Colin Kirkpatrick ’24 and Lucas Florsheim ’24 had outstanding debut seasons in 2021, and the Sagehens—who’d won the 2019 NCAA Division III championship with a different core—repeated as national titlists.
“A perfect year,” Fearon calls his sophomore season. “Our annus mirabilis.”
“We started thinking, ‘This is easy. That wasn’t so hard,’” Kirkpatrick says. “It wasn’t until the next year we learned humility. We realized, ‘This isn’t as easy as we thought.’”
With several key returning juniors, Pomona-Pitzer was heavily favored to win a third straight Division III championship in 2022.
So much so, Fearon recalls, that many on the team started believing the title was theirs to lose instead of theirs to win.
The Sagehens breezed to conference and regional championships with Fearon, Kirkpatrick and Florsheim leading the charge and entered the title race as the consensus top team in the country.
But they finished 5th at nationals, off the podium.
“It was really hard to handle the pressure of being the best team,” Fearon says.
Disappointing result aside, Kirkpatrick and his classmates found a silver lining in the journey.
“Every guy on that team had put in a solid six months of running a lot of miles and you hope to get something concrete out of it,” Kirkpatrick says. “In the moment, you’re frustrated, until you look around and see your friends there and you remember the good times. Once we started reflecting, everyone was happy with the year.”
Pomona-Pitzer Coach Amber Williams’ path to the 2023 NCAA Division III National Championship began a decade ago in Indiana, at her alma mater, Ball State University.
There, the former Division I student-athlete cut her teeth as a track and field coach after a gilded collegiate career. Williams spent four years at Ball State before successive stops at fellow Division I programs Colgate University, Cleveland State University and Columbia University.
This June, Pomona-Pitzer hired her to coach men’s cross country and track and field.
“I’d been lucky enough to know about the program here through other coaching friends, so I had the pleasure of knowing the kind of place Pomona-Pitzer is,” Williams says. “I’d heard nothing but good things and glowing reviews.”
“You feel at times you never get a utopia,” she adds, “but here felt pretty doggone close.”
While not her first time taking over a men’s athletics program, Williams still wondered how a female head coach would be received at Pomona-Pitzer—even with Emma DeLira, the team’s longtime direct training coach and an invaluable piece of the program, on staff.
“You never know how a men’s team will react” to having a female coach, Williams says, “but they were so warm and so open to the opportunity. It speaks volumes to who they are as people. … When it comes to those guys, they knew at the end of the day, the mission was to try to get another championship.”
Introductions behind them, Williams and the Sagehens set out on a bounce back season.
“There’s a good tradition of competitiveness and a winning culture here,” Williams says. “You feel that prestige when you come through the doors. After what happened last year, we hoped we could bring it back.”
Despite coming up short last fall, Pomona-Pitzer returned five of seven athletes who competed in the national meet and began the campaign ranked highly in Division III. But injuries, illnesses and lackluster performances in the latter part of the year tanked the Sagehens’ rank heading into the postseason.
With adversity, however, came perspective.
“Being the underdogs, you wonder how a team will take that, how it’ll react when something doesn’t go their way,” Williams says. “Some athletes feel the path has to be perfect, and if it isn’t, nationals is out of reach. These guys figured it out every week, every meet. You saw them believe the good races were coming and uplift each other, care about each other.”
“That affirmation can bring someone who’s the most down, back up,” Williams added, “and that’s how you know great things can happen.”
As they had the year before, the Sagehens captured conference and regional championships on their way to nationals. Typically, teams ranked outside the top 3 heading into the title race have little chance to win, Fearon says.
Pomona-Pitzer was ranked 8th.
“I didn’t wake up in the morning thinking we were going to win,” Fearon says. “All I knew is we had to run the best race.”
Despite their ranking, the Sagehens won the national championship by a single point—the narrowest margin of victory in Division III history. And in this season of surprises, Fearon says, Jack Stein ’26—the team’s 5th and final scoring runner at nationals—captured the points needed to secure the win.
Also making history in victory was Williams, becoming the first female head coach to win a Division III men’s cross country championship.
“For a lot of the guys, there’s more ownership of this championship” compared to 2021, Kirkpatrick says. “Two years ago, we didn’t really know what it would take to win. But this year, we knew exactly what it would take, how hard it would be and how unlikely it was.”
Pomona-Pitzer now is one of five Division III men’s cross country programs with at least three national championships.
The third trophy is expected to join the other two forevermore on the top shelf of the Wall of Champions inside the Center for Athletic, Recreation and Wellness at Pomona.
While the titles are nice, Fearon hopes the graduating seniors leave behind something more.
“Winning is really awesome and certainly a goal we had, but more than winning, we wanted to create a culture of support and love and gratitude,” Fearon says. “College is really hard, and what makes a successful college experience is having a community that you can go to every day and have that be the best part of your day. I feel we created that.”
Kirkpatrick echoes that sentiment.
“One thing we hope Pomona-Pitzer continues to be in the future is a team that, from the fastest guy to the slowest guy, is all spiritually aligned on the same mission,” he says. “Not just the top guys are chasing after our mission, everyone’s along for the ride, because everyone is an instrumental part of what we do.”
In the days following the team’s historic win, Fearon, Florsheim, Kirkpatrick and Cameron Hatler ’25 earned All-America honors. For Fearon and Florsheim, the distinctions were the third of their careers—something only Crosby Freeman ’06 had accomplished as a Sagehen distance runner.
Additionally, Williams was named the National Men’s Coach of the Year—the first female and third Pomona-Pitzer coach to receive the honor.
While an individual coaching award, Williams is effusive in her praise of DeLira, a tireless leader.
“I’m working with great people, in a great space, in a great environment,” Williams says. “I feel a great culture here. I’ve done my fair share of bouncing around during my Division I times, so I’m ready to find that space I can call home, with people I hope want to call it home as well.”
“I hope we can continue to do great things for a long time.”
As an enthusiast with a deep understanding of collegiate cross country, I can attest to the significance and complexity of the journey described in the article dated Wednesday, December 13, 2023. The narrative revolves around the Pomona-Pitzer men's cross country team's triumph at the NCAA Division III National Championship, showcasing the resilience, challenges, and ultimate success of both the athletes and their coach, Amber Williams.
Firstly, the article highlights the initial struggles of the class of 2024 during their freshman year in 2020, dealing with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The athletes had to navigate a unique situation, racing independently while scattered across the country. This period of uncertainty and independence laid the foundation for a strong team culture that became evident later.
The sophomore year marked a triumphant return to NCAA competition for Pomona-Pitzer, with athletes like Derek Fearon, Colin Kirkpatrick, and Lucas Florsheim leading the team to a successful defense of their 2019 NCAA Division III championship. The narrative emphasizes the challenges of transitioning from success to humility in the following year, where high expectations led to a fifth-place finish at nationals.
The turning point in the team's journey comes with the hiring of Coach Amber Williams, who brought her experience as a former Division I student-athlete and coach to Pomona-Pitzer. The article underlines her decade-long coaching journey and her apprehensions about being a female head coach for a men's cross country team, a concern that was quickly dispelled by the warm reception from the team.
Williams and the Sagehens faced adversity in the subsequent season, dealing with injuries, illnesses, and a decline in rankings. However, the team's ability to overcome challenges and maintain belief in each other led to a remarkable comeback. Against the odds, Pomona-Pitzer secured the national championship by the narrowest margin of victory in Division III history, with Jack Stein playing a crucial role as the fifth scoring runner.
Notably, Coach Amber Williams made history as the first female head coach to win a Division III men's cross country championship, adding another layer of significance to the team's accomplishment. The article concludes by emphasizing the enduring legacy of the team, aiming to create a culture of support, love, and gratitude that goes beyond the thrill of winning championships.
In summary, this article captures the intricacies of collegiate cross country, including the challenges of COVID-19 disruptions, the dynamics of team culture, the highs and lows of competition, and the impact of a dedicated coach. Pomona-Pitzer's journey to the 2023 NCAA Division III National Championship is a testament to the resilience, teamwork, and leadership that define successful collegiate athletics.