Running in her final Big Sky Conference Championship last weekend, Northern Arizona’s Paige Gilchrist finally broke through with the biggest achievement of her career.
With finishes of 13th, 6th and 16th in her three years at the conference meet, the redshirt senior beat the rest of the field by nearly 11 seconds for the individual title while the Northern Arizona women easily beat out second-place Montana State to repeat as team champions.
“It was very exciting, it’s almost in some sense like a relief,” said Gilchrist, a Missoula, Montana native who won state championships in cross country and track at Hellgate High School. “You get yourself really amped up, you get yourself pretty anxious for it. I was pretty nervous the morning of because yeah, I had never gotten that and this was my last shot to do it. Just coming through and going 'oh man, finally,’ it did feel really good.”
The past few years have been a work in progress for both Gilchrist and the Northern Arizona women’s team. While the men have recorded four top-five finishes at the NCAA meet in the past five years, including last season’s national championship, the women last reached the national meet as a team in 2008.
Now ranked No. 29 in the nation and within reach of a national bid pending the results from the Mountain Regional and other region meets around the country, first-year head coach Michael Smith said he’s been impressed by the team’s results this year.
“There’s been huge progress in a short period of time and I think the question is does that progress line up with that explicit goal of being at the national meet,” Smith said. “I think it’ll be really close, but the growth has been amazing. The growth has been something that, regardless of outcome, is something we are really proud of here.”
WORKING TOWARD THE GOAL
For Gilchrist and Smith, consistency and confidence was the key to the team’s improvement through the past year.
Gilchrist said the team repeating its training, even to the point of monotony, is what Smith has preached for months, even adding that her head coach will joke that it should all be boring.
“You just do the same thing over and over and we are kind of laughing -- yeah, it feels like it sometimes, but that’s the whole point,” Gilchrist said. “It’s not the one great workout you have or the one pretty solid long run, it’s the combination of 100 days in a row of the same kind of training and the same kind of sleeping.”
With their bodies tuned to the repetition, it led to results on the course.
Between the Greater Louisville Classic and Pre-National Invitational, Northern Arizona holds victories over No. 23 Eastern Kentucky, No. 25 Ohio State and multiple teams just outside the nation’s top 30.
Gilchrist, Mikayla Malaspina and Miranda Myers all finished inside the top 35 at the Greater Louisville Classic, with the team’s fifth-place finish trailing Boise State, Furman, Minnesota and Wisconsin, who all rank between 10th and 17th nationally.
“A huge piece of it is confidence, believing that they are good, believing they can compete at that level,” Smith said. “They have really taken an ownership of the preparation and that’s been a much deeper investment since I’ve been here with what the day to day looks like. There’s a professionalism to it.”
Juniors Malaspina and Myers turned 8th- and 36th-place finishes at Big Sky a year ago into 3rd- and 6th-place results this year while a group of new freshmen have helped fill up the back half of the team’s finishers.
“Mikayla and Miranda, when they came in, they were sort of in this place: Did they want to be freshmen that kind of didn’t know anything or did they really want to take responsibility for what was happening?” Smith said, “They have really rose up to that. They have just come so far and all that translates into how they race.”
With some of the team’s other upperclassmen stepping up their performances, Gilchrist’s health allowed her to finally feel comfortable again.
“That throws you off more than you'd ever imagine. My first injury, I didn't run for five months, and I think it took me a couple years to get back into a consistent pattern of mileage, workouts and racing,” Gilchrist said. “It doesn't all just come right back, you can do all of it and you just get faster. It’s a difficult process -- it’s like one step forward, three or four steps back.”
Finally accepting the process of recovery won’t be quick for anyone, Gilchrist said it took awhile to understand she was just like anyone else struggling to return to 100 percent. After weeks of repeated workouts with no pain, Gilchrist said it was a fun feeling to be able to say everything felt fine and be able to wake up each day continuing the same routine.
“It makes me just so grateful to be in the place that I am with the coaches and teammates that I have, that this is possible now five years down the road,” Gilchrist said. “Things are finally clicking a little bit better and it is exciting.”
With 18 automatic bids for the top two finishers in each region, another 13 schools will reach the NCAA meet through at-large bids.
For Northern Arizona, the likelihood of a first- or second-place finish in Nov. 10’s Mountain Region is small. Currently ranking No. 1 and No. 2 in the nation, Colorado and New Mexico reside in Northern Arizona’s region, along with No. 15 Utah State and No. 18 BYU. One of just three regions with at least five top-30 teams, Northern Arizona could make the case that it has one of the toughest roads to a NCAA berth.
“There’s still so many impressive people who are going to be at our region, which is exciting for us,” Gilchrist said. “It isn't an easy region. Which I have always kind of felt a little prideful of. If you make it there, you are doing something right.”
Gilchrist added that the team is trying to maintain level heads about the challenge of the region meet. While proud about the result of the Big Sky meet, the senior said the team isn’t satisfied about the result.
“You don’t want to be too nonchalant, I mean I don’t think we could at this point,” Gilchrist said. “We definitely have some confidence that we need, that we haven't had in past years, and it is good for us. It is good to allow ourselves to think we are making strides, we are doing good, we are going to do some good things.”
While an at-large bid partly depends on an impressive result at the Mountain Regional, results from around the country will also impact Northern Arizona’s chances. One example Smith provided was the results of the South Central Regional.
Running the same day as the Lumberjacks’ Mountain Regional, Northern Arizona hopes Baylor will earn an automatic bid as it currently sits at No. 4 in its region. The formula for at-large bids grants schools points for beating other teams during the regular season, meaning outside influences during the slate of regionals could push Northern Arizona in or out.
“That morning we will have our eyes on a whole lot of things and there’s certain scenarios we will be rooting for because they will benefit our team,” Smith said. “It’s an odd occurrence in our sport but I think it’s a fair system and they do the best they can with it. ... It’s an opportunity for our team, they have to do their thing. They have got to follow their race plan and run the best team race we can.”
Gilchrist said regardless of how her final season ends, she’s proud of what the team has accomplished this season, given what it has gone through in recent years. However, a berth to the NCAAs would cap off her story in the best possible way.
“There’s not a better way to finish up my season, there's not a better way to finish up my collegiate career with NAU,” Gilchrist said.