Forging his own path
Former walk-on wins UB's first individual MAC title
Four years ago, Zach Ahart was fighting for a roster spot on the men's cross country team.
Not even on scholarship, Ahart had to scratch and claw his way to the front of the pack.
Now, Ahart, a senior, has become the first male athlete in UB history to win an individual Mid-American Conference championship. He placed first in the men's 8k race at the conference championship tournament on Nov. 2.
"Honestly, when I first came here, becoming a MAC champion wasn't even on the radar," Ahart said. "I was barely recruited. It was more like, 'If you run these times, you will have a spot on the team,' so first objective was to secure a spot on the team."
Ahart didn't earn an athletic scholarship until his junior season. This year, he was the only senior and the unquestioned leader.
His attitude shifted. He started to believe he could be a champion.
Ahart ran nearly 90 miles per week last summer, highlighted by a 16-18 mile run over the hills at Chestnut Ridge Park in Orchard Park on Sundays.
Before this offseason, he sat down and spoke with men's distance coach and associate head coach Todd Witzleben. Ahart finished ninth in the conference as a junior but wasn't satisfied. He wanted his last season at Buffalo to be historic.
The team told him throughout the season he had the potential to do amazing things. Ahart wasn't concerned about that, however. He knew his role as the lone senior was to get the younger runners ready for competition.
"It's great seeing how all the work he put in has come together," said sophomore Tyler Scheving, one of Ahart's teammates. "He personifies every aspect of the word 'captain.' He's a great leader and every time we would say to him, 'Maybe you can win MACs,' he would say, 'That would be great, but I want the team to win.'"
The improvements were evident at the first race, when Ahart won the "UB Stampede" at Grand Island High School in the 8k course. The second-place runner finished a whole 30 seconds after Ahart. Though he was disappointed that no other MAC runners participated in the race, Ahart described this victory as a "good starting point."
The MAC Championships were six weeks later in Bowling Green, Ohio. They featured classic Buffalo weather, however, with downpours the previous day and on-and-off rain throughout the day of the competition.
This cold, wet golf course knocked some runners off their game - but not Ahart.
Ahart's goal for Buffalo was to win the event as a team, but he also knew if an opportunity presented itself to take the individual championship, he would take it. About 2.5 miles into the approximately five-mile race, the opening emerged.
"My plan coming in was stay off the front pack and hope teammates would come with me and give a good running at the team championship," Ahart said. "Then if I saw the opportunity to take it, I would. And I did.
"[I] began to pop out to side and leading the race and hoped the guys [behind] would drop, but it was tough because they were running me down. It was nerve racking."
He was separating from the rest of the runners. Unable to turn back and look, he couldn't judge how big his lead was, but he just kept going.
Ahart held off the competition easily to earn the first MAC individual cross country title in school history. He was shocked at what he saw when he crossed the finish line.
"I tried to hold back a lot of the excitement because I didn't want to over celebrate, but I turned around and my first thought was, 'Where the heck is everybody else?'" Ahart said.
The impact of the individual championship resonates throughout the team and the UB athletic department as a whole. Buffalo has pushed to become a school that competes on national stages, and Ahart's performance is a step toward such within the program.
"We expect championship results here and there is certainly a level of excellence with that, and [Ahart's] commitments are a huge symbol for the direction of our program and where we want to be on an annual basis," said Buffalo Athletic Director Danny White.
As the team captain and a former walk-on, Ahart serves as a role model for the younger athletes. His unprecedented success helps them believe they can do the same.
"I think [his championship] was a game-changer for all the freshmen on this team because that's something we all want," said freshman Lloyd Webb, who walked onto the team this season. "Seeing him do it gets us all pumped up for the future."
But Ahart has not accomplished all his goals yet. Nov. 15 will be the NCAA's Northeastern Championships in the Bronx and depending on his performance, he could advance to the National Championships.
The Starpoint High School graduate has lived his entire life in Buffalo, which he described as an "underappreciated" city. UB runners have to deal with many obstacles - including the tough winter weather near the end of the season and facilities that don't compete with those of other schools.
"Every school we go to has an indoor track perfectly groomed, and in some cases better weather and we always go there like, 'I wish we had this and that,'" Ahart said. "But honestly to do this here, it gives me a lot of pride and it just goes to show it's not about the facilities, but it's about the program, camaraderie and the coaching staff."
Witzleben has witnessed Ahart's growth and maturity the past four years. As a result of this maturation, the coaching staff put the leadership burden on him, and he has responded as they hoped - serving as a role model for the rest of the team and signifying the potential success every runner possesses.
"What it does is that it shows the rest of the team that a guy from Buffalo, a guy wearing a blue jersey, can go out and win this meet," Witzleben said. "Four years ago, I don't think the guys had the belief that it could be done, and now we are getting to that point."
The athletes have felt this effect.
"There's so much more positive energy because of [his win]," Scheving said. "Especially because [Ahart] was a walk-on and he ended up winning the MAC title, it shows that if he can just walk on and win, then any of us can do well at any given point."
Ahart "still can't put into words" how it feels to be the first person in program history to achieve such a feat. His coaches can.
"[Ahart] winning kind of emulates the blue collar attitude the rest of the team has," Witzleben said. "Hopefully there are young guys on the team looking up to him now, two, three years from now that's what they want."
The walk-on turned champion enters the next race with the same mentality he had in the MAC championship: He wants his team to perform well. But, as he said, "If I see an opportunity, I'll take it."