Way Ahead

In this file photo from September, Northland Prep Academy senior Maya Smith powers toward the finish line while maintaining a dominant lead Saturday morning during the Four Corners Invitational at Buffalo Park in Flagstaff. Smith finished with a new girls meet record time of 17:27 flat and went on to win her fourth individual state championship.

Jake Bacon, Arizona Daily Sun

It’s been an exciting fall sports season in Flagstaff, with a national collegiate championship and four city high school teams winning state cross country titles, not to mention the NPA girls soccer team and squads in Williams (football) and Page (cross country), too.

But it was NAU that saved the best until last, as its athletics director, head football coach and the football team itself went through a whirlwind final week of the regular season, emerging – almost miraculously – to host a first-round FCS playoff game this Saturday in the Dome.

But first to the high schools. The first-place finishes of NPA cross country runner Maya Smith now seem almost routine, but in 2017 the senior outdid herself. She won every race she entered, including her fourth straight individual state title. She improved her times on the Buffalo Park course from last year and did the same with the state meet course at Cave Creek, with a winning margin of more than a minute. And, more important, she helped to pull her teammates to three state team championships and a second place in four years.

Hardly routine, however, was the feat of the NPA boys, who dethroned Hopi High after a national record 27 consecutive state titles in their division. NPA was led by two sophomores who will form the nucleus of next year’s defending champs.

Over at Flag High, the cross country dynasty is even more solid, with both the girls and the boys winning state titles for the third straight year. And the Coconino girls finished second in their division. These top finishes are a testament to a deeply supportive city running culture that also nourishes the world-class athletes who run for NAU – the men successfully defended their national title last week in Louisville.

The football drama began to build in September when AD Lisa Campos announced after two games (both nonconference losses) that Head Coach Jerome Souers would not have his contract renewed after the season – regardless of the team’s final record. With 20 seasons at NAU under his belt, Souers appeared to more than take it in stride – the Lumberjacks promptly reeled off six straight wins and would have had seven were it not for the illegal block that removed star quarterback Case Cookus in the first quarter of the Montana game. (The Jacks went on to lose by only 17-15 in Missoula.)

Then, last week, the plot thickened as it became clear Campos had been interested in leaving NAU for a new job even before the Souers announcement. When she took the AD post at the University of Texas at San Antonio for nearly twice her NAU salary, NAU President Rita Cheng stepped in. On Friday, Executive VP Joanne Keene immediately became interim head of Athletics even though Campos wasn’t due to report to her new job until January. And on Monday, Cheng reversed Campos and said Souers would have his contract extended for another year.

In between the two moves by Cheng came a crushing loss by the Lumberjacks in the Big Sky title game to Southern Utah, followed by a decision by the FCS playoff committee that had NAU fans scratching their heads while smiling from ear to ear. The panel put the 7-4 Jacks not only into the playoffs but seeded high enough to host a first-round game, and against a team from the non-scholarship Pioneer League.

A clearly grateful Souers told the Daily Sun he felt “rescued” by Cheng from an awkward situation that no coach with his tenure and winning record should have been placed in. And now it is on to the Dome and the U.C San Diego Torreros Saturday at 6 p.m. The game will feature two strong-armed quarterbacks who lead high-powered offenses and is expected to be one of the season’s best contests.

And if the Jacks win? They will likely draw perennial power North Dakota State the first Saturday in December in Fargo, N.D. But it’s not as daunting as it sounds – the game will be indoors and we understand that NAU can count on several alumni in Fargo ready to lead the cheers.

Go, Jacks!

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