When Colton Sands and Brendan Colwell arrived at Penns Valley Area High School in the fall of 2017, few would have known the small school in rural Spring Mills, Pennsylvania would be getting a pair of distance runners that would eventually emerge as two of the nation's best.
The stepping stones were in place, though. The two ninth graders joined forces with an already strong Penns Valley lineup, and went on to put together a dominating performance at Hershey's Parkview Course to win the 2017 PIAA Class A state team title.
It's been an upward trajectory since then for Sands and Colwell. The phones are ringing off the hook with calls from college coaches for the blue-chip distance recruits, who quickly collected state accolades before becoming two of the top talents in the U.S.
In the process, they are establishing themselves as one of the greatest XC duos Pennsylvania has ever seen.
It's a summer of uncertainty for all cross country runners in Pennsylvania, as well as the entire nation. Like most runners, Sands and Colwell are pounding away at the mileage, ready for a cross country season, whatever it may look like.
But you won't find any signs of discouragement from these teenagers, who have already lost one season of high school competition. Instead, you'll find a fire that still burns to become the country's best.
A Rise To The National Radar
While Sands and Colwell had made their presence known in the PA distance running scene early on with impressive freshman campaigns, the pair crept onto the national stage last fall during their junior cross country seasons.
On the heels of a Class AA 3,200 state title in the spring as a sophomore on the track, Sands started out start in XC. He picked up wins at the Big Valley Invitational, the PIAA Foundation Invitational, and then dropped a 15:14 to win the District 6 title. Colwell wasn't far behind him each step of the way, even taking second to Sands' third at the Harry Groves Spiked Shoe Invitational at Penn State.
Then it was a Penns Valley 1-2 finish at the PIAA State Championships in Class A, as Sands took home his first XC state title in 15:56 with Colwell grabbing silver in 16:05. It was a dominant showing from the state's best tandem.
A few weeks later at Foot Locker Northeast, it was a bittersweet day for the two at Van Cortlandt Park in New York. Sands ran to ninth place, earning a trip to Foot Locker Nationals in San Diego. Colwell was eleventh, just missing a top ten finish and a spot in the national championship meet.
Colwell remained optimistic despite the disappointment.
"I would say that's the best race I've ever run," he said. "It was the hardest race I've ever run for sure. Probably one of the dumbest races I've run too -- we were 61 seconds through the 400. That race definitely left a bitter taste in my mouth. At the end of the day, I was 11th in the best region in the country."
Meanwhile, Sands made the most of his trip to nationals, taking tenth in the country, surprising many, including even himself.
"When I first crossed the line I didn't know what place I had come in," he told us back in December. "When I learned I was in the top ten I was kinda in disbelief. To place so well in that deep of field certainly is something I'll be proud of for a while."
As Colwell watched his teammate from home, he said he gained confidence for himself seeing his frequent training partner perform so well.
"Maybe I didn't make that national meet, but if he was tenth, I think I would have been up there with him,"
Putting Big Plans On Hold
All signs pointed to big seasons on the track for the Penns Valley pair. They raced sparingly during the winter season, though Sands did pick up a indoor state title in the 3K, running 8:31.96 and out-dueling two-time AAA XC state champion and third place Foot Locker Nationals finisher Patrick Anderson ("The 8:31 I ran at states was really relaxed.")
The world had different plans for the spring, though. The coronavirus pandemic derailed the spring sports season all across the United States. The indoor state meet was the last we saw of Pennsylvania athletes -- in an official sense -- before the nation was put into quarantine.
Sands had plans to run a fast 5K on the track against elite competition at the Texas Distance Festival, but that was not to be.
"I was going to be on a plane Friday morning and then I got a call Thursday afternoon that I wasn't getting on the plane," he said.
Sands and Colwell were also set to compete in the Raleigh Relays in North Carolina against more top national runners. But, of course, that was also canceled.
"I was really looking forward to cementing myself on the national stage that I got to in cross country, and really show that I was not only one of the best runners in my class, but one of the best runners in the country," Sands said.
"I was really down about not being able to go to Raleigh," Colwell said. "But my coach and I were talking and he said, 'you're never going to have a perfect season. Something is always going to go wrong. This is just one of the bigger obstacles you're going to have to deal with, but it's not the end of the world.'"
Sands and Colwell followed different plans during the lost outdoor track season.
Colwell ran a number of time trials, highlighted by an impressive 5K on the track. 2019 PIAA Class AA state champion in the 800 and 1,600 meters Garrett Baublitz of Juniata (now at the U.S. Naval Academy) paced the race and Colwell ran a negative split 14:53.
That time would be good for No. 5 all-time in Pennsylvania high school history, and Colwell said he felt very strong en route.
"It wasn't easy, obviously, but it wasn't really that hard. The 5K was really fun," he said, praising Baublitz's pacing abilities ("He could probably be a professional pacer at some point.")
Sands, on the other hand, opted not to race competitively during the spring.
"I'm not a time trial runner," he said "I like competition and I can't run fast by myself. I didn't time trial or anything."
But now the pair are preparing for the cross country season, running alone frequently, sometimes running together, and other times running with the rest of their Penns Valley teammates.
It's a tight-knit team, partially out of necessity due to the school's small size, but also out of a culture established by coach Terry Glunt and the many runners that have come through Penns Valley over Sands and Colwell's careers.
A Culture of Accountability
Penns Valley had a strong core in place when Sands and Colwell joined the team as freshman for the 2017 season.
"We have a really good culture," Sands said. "When we came in, there was a group of established seniors -- Chris Colwell, Mark Bierly, Sam Gray, and Charlie Romig -- and they really took us in as freshman and showed us the ropes."
At the state meet, Penns Valley had four medalists with Sands (tenth) leading the way. Colwell earned an 18th place medal, and PVA scored just 68 points to win by 27 points over second place Elk County Catholic.
Interview with the Penns Valley Area boys after their 2017 XC state title
The success was sustained as Penns Valley placed fourth in the Class A in 2018 and then fifth last year.
Colwell credits Coach Glunt for fostering a sense of accountability for every member of the team.
"Coach Glunt has done a great job creating a good team culture," he said. "Everybody there wants to get better, whether that's running 18 minutes or 16 minutes, Coach Glunt's always been there to tell us how to get to that next level. He's really good at creating leaders."
It was a competitive, yet team-oriented atmosphere that led to that success. It was also a culture that didn't seem to bother with labels like school classification.
Penns Valley is a school with an enrollment of 319, per the PIAA's latest figures. Despite that size, Penns Valley was the tenth best team in the PIAA in 2017, according to the meet merge, which combined all the times regardless of classification.
"Freshman year, we wanted to be the best team in the state -- we didn't want to just be the Single-A champs," Colwell said. "That mindset early on has stayed there the whole time. We want to be the best in the state."
The team is well-bonded, which is, in many ways, a byproduct of coming from a small school where the numbers simply aren't there to not have everyone at their best. That's where the need for accountability comes into play.
"At the bigger schools, when there are so many guys on the team, it kind of loses the individuality of each guy," Sands said. "Where with our team, every guy is really important, and it helps."
Penns Valley's prospects for 2020 look strong, with all six of the team's members back from last season. With Sands and Colwell providing lowsticks on the state stage, fellow seniors Daniel Kelly, Thaddeus Smith, and Max Feidler are joined by sophomore Simon Smith on the line to add some good depth.
A National-Caliber Duo
It was that early success that really set the stage for the individual successes that were to come for Sands and Colwell.
"Colton and I, getting that experience as freshmen definitely set up this year to say 'this is what it takes to be there,'" Colwell said.
Interview: Sands after winning the PIAA Class A state title in XC last fall
From there, it's been a relentless drive to be the best pair in the country. It's an attitude that seems to be borne out of that who cares about school size? swagger. And it's something the two have been scheming about since that ninth grade season.
"Since freshman year track season came around, we recognized 'maybe we're the two best freshmen in the state and we go to the same school. This is really cool,'" Sands said. "Sophomore year, we wanted to be the best duo in the state. Junior year, we're looking around and we're like 'we're the best duo in the state, let's be the best duo in the nation.' That's always been the goal to show that there's not a better 1-2 than us anywhere."
Both have attracted the attention of plenty of college coaches, eager to get proven talent on their rosters as they deal with their own uncertainty. Sands said he has narrowed his list of schools to Furman University, the University of North Carolina, Purdue University, Temple University, and the University of Virginia.
Any way you slice it, Sands and Colwell have already solidified themselves as one of Pennsylvania's top duos of all-time. And a look to the stats compared to other duos in the nation right now? They belong right in the thick of that conversation, if not at the top.
Questions loom about whether or not Sands and Colwell will get to prove those chops to the rest of the nation. But they have made it clear: they are ready for the challenge if and when it presents itself.
Plans For This Fall
School starts up on Tuesday of next week at Penns Valley Area. Sands and Colwell will be in the classroom, along with the rest of their classmates. They await a PIAA decision on Friday that could decide the fate of their XC season.
Interview: Colwell after taking second at the PIAA XC State Championships last year
"I hope we have a season," Colwell said, who sees cross country as a low-risk sport in COVID times. "As long as it's safe for everybody, I want to be able to race. I want everybody to show off what they worked for in the spring and summer."
If there's no "official" season, Colwell has plenty of backup plans. He will time trial again, and noted that there are plenty of group chats with a number of eager fellow runners, hungry for makeshift opportunities. Colwell also said he would like to take a crack at Noah Affolder's PA state record in the 5K on the track, which sits at 14:18.
Sands will be a bit more choosey if the PIAA season is canceled or postponed this fall.
"I'm not going to hop in a race just for the sake of racing," he said. "It needs to be the right race and it needs to be the right competition."
Still, the miles continue.
Colwell has got up to 60 miles a week this summer. Sands said he was dealing with a little knee flare up and was balancing his mileage on the roads with work in the pool. He said he's been at around 50 miles a week.
Regardless of what the PIAA decides or how the fall as a whole plays out amid a pandemic, the Penns Valley boys won't stop running any time soon.
So what keeps those motivation levels high?
"Just knowing that eventually we're going to race again and you got to be ready," Sands said. "At the start of quarantine, we thought that was going to be late spring. Then we thought it was going to be this fall. Now maybe it's this fall, maybe it's the winter, maybe it's the spring, but eventually we're going to race and you don't want to be the guy that shows up to the first race out of shape."