Just a few weeks before he will receive his biology degree from the University at Buffalo, Zach Ahart was given an impromptu research task.
Todd Witzleben, associate head coach of UB’s cross country team, asked Ahart to read up on the men who have their names etched on the Mid-American Conference Cross Country championship trophy.
It’s a distinguished group of distance runners that includes Olympians and All-Americans.
And now it includes Ahart, a walk-on from Starpoint High School who last weekend became the first UB runner to win the MAC men’s championship.
“It’s amazing, some of the runners that came from this conference, and it feels good to be a part of history and to put Buffalo’s name on it,” Ahart said.
Ahart trekked the sloppy 8K course in Bowling Green, Ohio, in 24 minutes, 47.6 seconds, several paces ahead of the second-place finisher.
“The strategy was to sit off that front pack and wait through three miles, and if I felt good and saw an opportunity, to try take the lead and take down the pace, string out the race and pull away from the group,” Ahart said.
“I was a little anxious sitting there waiting, but when I finally did it, it felt good.”
Ahart wasn’t considered a top contender in the race, Witzleben said, even after he turned in a time of 24:13 at the Princeton Invite the week before.
“Nobody expects to see a blue shirt running out in front of the pack, because they have never seen it before,” Witzleben said.
UB has never had a male runner finish better than third before, and Ahart led the Bulls last year with a ninth-place finish in the MAC championships held on UB’s home course at Beaver Island State Park.
Ahart was the first Bull to truly believe he could win the race, Witzleben said, and now that belief has permeated the entire team.
“That was my focus during the race,” Ahart said. “Putting our team in position. We have a very young team, so I wanted to make sure we were setting ourselves up for years to come.”
Ahart joined the Starpoint modified team as a seventh-grader and soon developed into one of the top cross country and track runners for a program that has been a perennial contender for more than two decades under coach Brian Lasher.
“There’s a lot of tradition in the program,” Ahart said. “Mr. Lasher is extremely passionate about the sport, about coaching, and I think that’s what separates him from other coaches in the section.”
Starpoint graduate Mike Gillis helped recruit Ahart to UB, and after passing a time trial, Ahart was given a spot on the team.
Ahart won the top newcomer award after his freshman season. “I just wanted to solidify a spot on the team and try to score in meets,” he said.
Ahart has also been a MAC All-Academic team selection the past two seasons and is likely to earn the recognition again this year. Upon graduation in December, he will enroll in UB’s medical school next semester.
He emerged as the Bulls’ top runner by his junior year.
“Todd’s big philosophy is progression, and that’s what he talks about, looking beyond this year and trusting the training,” Ahart said.
“I was ninth in the conference last year, so individually, it was a big goal of mine to put myself in position to try and win this year.”
Up next for Ahart is the NCAA Northeast Championships on Friday in New York City.
The goal, Witzleben said, is to finish in the top 15, which is one spot higher than UB’s Jerimie Slick placed in 2003, the year Slick took third in the MAC championship race.
“It’s a stacked region,” Ahart said. “But winning the conference has built up my confidence, and my goal is to put myself in position to try and qualify for nationals.”