Just after the Downtown Mile on the Fourth of July, Northern Arizona University runners Peter Lomong and Cade Burks were chatting on Heritage Square about the Lumberjacks’ chances for a repeat NCAA national cross country championship this fall.
The roster, they said, was 13 runners deep, and they knew how good they were coming into 2017, whereas during the 2016 championship season the athletes were confident but cautious about how good they might actually be on a national level.
We are now two weeks removed from that second national title, and wow did NAU’s confidence shine through. I recalled that conversation a lot this fall, as NAU led the way on the course at every meet and off the course in every national ranking that was released.
Talk immediately turns in sport to the potential for a dynasty when a team wins a championship or two. It’s certainly tempting to do so in the case of NAU’s most successful athletic program.
If you read NAU geology professor and unofficial traveling flag-bearer Abe Springer’s High Country Running column last week (or, for that matter, a year ago when he returned from that national meet), you certainly get the sense that something special is brewing here.
He even encouraged readers to mark Nov. 17, 2018, on their calendars for a trip to the NCAAs in Madison, Wisconsin. The rest of the country, Springer said, is taking notice. We shouldn’t take it for granted, because lots can happen to derail even the best of teams’ championship aspirations.
Let’sRun posted a thorough article on the question of NAU’s possibility for a three-peat. It explored the running culture in Flagstaff, but also the practical issues involved in competing at this level. Here’s the section that caught my attention.
“At first glance, it appears that NAU dominated the team competition this year — the Lumberjacks’ 53-point margin of victory was the largest since 2012. Yet if NAU’s #3 had run 10 seconds slower and their #4 & 5 had run 20 seconds slower … then Portland would have been your national champions.”
In other words, there are no guarantees. As tempting as it is to pre-ordain a 2018 title, those who are in the trenches know that is courting trouble. Watching national men’s coach of the year Mike Smith being interviewed after the race was a joy. Check it out on YouTube.
He gave his predecessor Eric Heins a large amount of credit for leaving him such a well-stocked cupboard and making the transition go so well. Smith was emotional talking about Lomong’s eighth-place performance and the hard work he put in during the offseason.
He was engaging talking about how critical emotional control – “discipline of the mind” -- is to this squad’s success, as well as the catchword “gas” that he used with them during the season.
“Whenever you don’t know what to do? Gas,” Smith said. “Whenever you have a decision to make in the race, what do you do? Gas. What’s the race plan? Gas.”
A team that takes an aggressive approach like that is easy to get behind -- “We don’t write blogs about it. We just go to Buffalo Park and get the work in,” Smith added during the interview, nicely namedropping Flag’s running hub to a national audience.
The community is invited to hear more from Smith and his team at a national championship celebration at 5 p.m., Wednesday, at the DuBois Center Ballroom. The event is complimentary and open to the general public, but RSVP is requested.