"I always have high expectations before the season begins, and I knew we had the potential to do very well," Thornton said. "But even I didn't think we would do this well."
The Oles ran their way into the record books by finishing seventh overall at the 2004 NCAA Division III National Championships Nov. 20 in Colfax, Wis. The display was the team's second best in school history, right behind a fifth place national finish in 1978. This season also marks the ninth St. Olaf appearance in the NCAA Championships and the first since 2002 (when they placed 21st).
"This group would definitely compare favorably with that 1978 team. While that team was pegged early on as one of the top teams in the nation, this year's group was not," Thornton said. "We weren't even ranked very highly in the national polls entering the conference meet."
Facing outstanding national competition from 24 schools and 215 participants, the Oles, who won four of their six meets this year, including the MIAC Championship and Central Regional titles, finished with 267 points.
Kelly Fulton '05 paced the Ole runners with a commanding eighth place, 25:05 finish. Malcolm Richards '05, the second half of St. Olaf's one-two punch this season, came in two places and a mere five seconds behind Fulton. Both runners earned prestigious All-American honors with their top-15 performances.
"Our seniors - - even beyond Kelly and Malcolm, who both had great seasons - - are just great human beings and really an important part of our program," Thornton said.
Other notable performances were turned in by Tony Hoff '07, who came in 50th with a time of 25:44, and Marc Ellingson '06, who finished 75th with a time of 26:06.
"One of the keys for us this year was having Tony Hoff injury-free [he missed most of 2003 with a leg injury]," Thornton said. "Marc Ellingson's turnaround was also totally unforeseen but totally welcome. It's always great when someone has a breakout season."
Rounding out St. Olaf's top seven were Jason Havey '06 (124th, 26:45), David Swanson '08 (139th, 27:02) and Sam Hauck '06 (163rd, 28:20).
The upstart Oles may have surprised the nation this year, but 2005 will be an uphill battle for the defending MIAC champs. Despite the fact that both Fulton and Richards are graduating this spring, Thornton has high hopes for the future of his program.
"I'm fairly optimistic about next year," Thornton said. "We've got people that should step in and step up. I don't know if anyone can fill the shoes of Kelly and Malcolm, but we've definitely got the personnel in place to have another solid year."
For now, the men are simply content to reflect on what was a very memorable season. History, after all, is not made every year.