Three years after taking a brave personal step forward by coming out to his athletes and athletic director and becoming the first out gay cross country and track coach in NCAA history, Cal State East Bay head coach Tony Nicolosi has taken one of his programs to a place it hasn’t been in almost four decades.
During this past season, Nicolosi guided his women’s cross country team to qualify for their first NCAA Division II Championships in 36 years. The Pioneers finished ninth in the 2019 Championships, held at Sacramento’s Haggin Oaks Golf Course on November 23.
Reflecting on his team’s achievement, Nicolosi told Outsports, “For us to return after that length of time, and get a top ten finish in the country, it was incredibly special. Our women took their work ethic and belief in each other to a level we haven’t seen in my time here. They could not have done it without each and every person making a contribution to the overall goal, and to get to work with them every day and be a part of it was very rewarding.”
Getting his team to reach this level was a lengthy and sometimes arduous process for Nicolosi, who noted that he took the reigns with the Cal State East Bay cross country team a year after they had failed to even register a team score at the California Collegiate Athletic Association conference championships.
Calling his long-term goal of assembling a squad talented enough to qualify for the NCAA Championships “one of the most difficult undertakings we’ve ever been a part of,” Nicolosi lauded the effort of his entire team. “The women put the work in to make it a reality,” he asserted. “It was far from easy but incredibly worth it.”
After taking second at the CCHA Championships last October 26, the Pioneers solidified their place in the NCAA Championships with a third place finish at the NCAA West Regional on November 9. For Nicolosi, that moment was the highlight of an historic season:
“The region race was like a dream. We had never been in that position where qualifying for Nationals was on the line and they brought their best. I thought it was our most well-run meet of the season, and celebrating after realizing we had made it was a moment I’ll never forget.”
It wasn’t so long ago that Nicolosi had to overcome his own daunting obstacles on the way to establishing a successful coaching career. As he detailed in his 2016 coming out story, Nicolosi lived “in constant fear that being out would jeopardize getting or keeping a job, as well as how the team would perceive me.” In the face of this pressure, he quit his first graduate assistant job at South Florida and nearly did so again as an assistant at Western State.
Since establishing himself at Cal State East Bay and living his truth, Nicolosi has noticed things change for the positive. He noted that “I think my experience coaching has significantly improved since the article. I certainly am enjoying it more, and am a lot more thankful for the opportunity. I think I personally have been able to grow and improve in some areas that I was lacking in a few years ago. I think my relationship with my team is better.”
Looking ahead, Nicolosi is now preparing his men’s and women’s track and field teams for seasons that kick off this week. While noting that he leaves it to his teams to set their own goals, Nicolosi shared his big-picture vision for all of his programs:
“Long term, I am hopeful I can build a program that is known for its ability to compete at the top of D-II, while also producing some really high-character successful people in all aspects of life. I think we are very much on track for that right now.”
After a coaching journey that had its share of harrowing moments, Nicolosi is on track himself for an inspiring career at Cal State East Bay.