NAU Baxter Day

Northern Arizona's Tyler Day (left) and Matt Baxter (right) lead a group of runners at the NCAA championship meet in Louisville in November.

Justin Casterline, NAU Sports Information

Roughly two months after their victory at the NCAA National Championship in November, head coach Mike Smith and the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks will open their indoor track and field season Jan. 12 in the Walkup Skydome.

Northern Arizona will send Peter Lomong back into competition for the first time since he broke into the national headlines, as well as freshman Luis Grijalva in his first track and field season after a successful cross country campaign.

Set to host the Big Sky Conference indoor track and field championships in late February, the Lumberjacks enjoyed their mid-November victory over the past 60 days.

“The day that we won, my phone literally died after it was at a full charge,” said Lumberjacks runner Tyler Day. “My mom and dad were going crazy, my sister, family and friends, everyone in the running community. People I hadn’t talked to in a while were just saying 'I heard you did great, I just wanted to say congratulations.'”

With Northern Arizona’s entire scoring lineup finishing as All-Americans, the victory appeared to be in hand the instant Geordie Beamish crossed the finish line in 40th. With Beamish wrapping up the Lumberjacks’ 74-point day one spot behind Rory Linkletter, BYU’s top finisher at the Pre-Nationals and Mountain Regional meets, it seemed clear to Northern Arizona’s No. 5 finisher that they had knocked off their top challenger.

“I think I had him in sight for almost the entire race, running pretty close behind him,” Beamish said. “I was fairly confident he was their number three guy and I was our number five, so I figured if I could get as close to him as possible, we were going to be in pretty good shape.”

Beamish said keeping an eye on BYU’s runners passed through his mind at times, but the victory seemed truly real as the group was approached to be interviewed moments after they finished.

For those like Beamish, running a bit further back in the pack with no knowledge to how his teammates in the lead pack were faring, it took crossing the line to gather up as much information as possible.

For Day and Matt Baxter, their finishes inside the top three positioned Northern Arizona for the national title early, but turning around to see Lomong following close behind gave the duo a strong feeling of the work put in by those behind them.

“When Baxter and I finish, we turned around and we see Pete, a total surprise to us,” Day said. “Baxter was the first one to notice and was like, ‘Is that Pete?’ It was just insane, we are pushing up in front and everyone else is just doing their thing and going out of their minds for the team.”

Baxter compared Lomong’s finish to that of Andy Trouard's in 2016, who did not run in 2014 or 2015 before coming away with a 37th-place finish. Admitting the team sort of has an idea where they are all going to place, Baxter said you anticipate the top five with possibly an exception on the backend where someone else might slide in if they are running well to finish the year.

But Trouard’s All-American finish a year ago put Baxter in the mindset of surprises being a possibility, and Lomong’s run at the Mountain Regional had him trending in the right direction as the season came to a close.

“The guy is fit, he’s definitely got the potential of hitting All-American if he pulls everything together on the day,” Baxter said. “Then to turn around once we cross that finish line, I was just anticipating to see Andy come through, to see Geordie come soon, definitely Pete and Cory (Glines) in the mix. Then he was just right there."

As Baxter and Day embraced, finishing less than four seconds apart, Lomong ran through ahead of the crowd and just 33 seconds after his two teammates.

“When you watch the video, I had no idea how close he was to us. He wasn't that far off. By the time I turned around, that guy was well into the home straight,” Baxter said of Lomong. “So to some degree, definitely I was surprised to see him finish as low as he did -- but how well he raced at regionals, how well he has been working out and the dedication he has been putting into his training recently, I can’t be completely surprised.”

ENJOYING THE VICTORY

Whereas Northern Arizona edged Stanford by 33 points in 2016, and the result took time to become official after Glines capped off the scoring in 84th, Beamish’s finish allowed the group to begin celebrating as soon as the final two came through the finish line.

“As soon as Geordie crossed the line, we saw the excitement on his face. As soon as he came over to us, you just get a sense that something special has happened,” Baxter said. “We could all share in that moment and it was nice to be able to have that moment almost immediately this time.”

Smith added that the program as a whole needed to move cautiously from that celebration into training for the indoor season, with time needed to simply enjoy the achievement without any other work in the immediate aftermath.

“We get to this point and we have achieved this thing, we want to be able to reflect on what we have done and enjoy it together,” Smith said. “Seeing those guys together in those moments, with their arms around each other, smiling and joking, getting back to the tent and singing 'Sweet Caroline,' that's why we do this.”

With five of the seven runners competing at the NCAA meet for the second straight year, the reality of their likely place in Northern Arizona Athletics’ Hall of Fame hadn’t taken hold for Day a few weeks after.

“I came into a time where it was already a winning tradition. I don’t want to say that we came here and we are the winning tradition,” Day said. “If you are going to be a distance runner at NAU, you have got to show what you got and you have to prove to everyone why you have a spot on this team. It doesn't matter if you are a walk-on, doesn't matter if you have a full ride or if you are just a dude they gave a chance to, everyone is going to try their best to be on this team.”

Given the requirements necessary for excellence in their sport, Smith said the months following the title were some of his most important as the director of the program. Unlike every other collegiate sport, the cross country teams still have another five months of competition ahead, with the indoor season running in January and February before the NCAA meet in early March. Then the outdoor season picks up and spans the end of March until June.

“We need to just be really sensitive to what we demand of them. I always think as a coach I am going to be able to ask a lot of them in the season if I am respectful of the emotional and physical recharging that is just so needed once we get through this thing,” Smith said. “To live like we need to live, it’s not like normal college students. To sleep like they need to sleep, to recover, to eat the way they need to eat.”

HOPING TO MAKE HISTORY

With individual champion Justyn Knight graduating from Syracuse, Baxter and Day will enter 2018 with opportunities at the title as well as looking to complete Northern Arizona’s three-peat. Additionally, Lomong, Beamish and Grijalva give Northern Arizona five returners with top-60 NCAA finishes on their resumes.

The return of Baxter came as a surprise to those outside the program following the Lumberjacks’ repeat in November, as the New Zealand native originally entered the season listed as a senior before a waiver from the NCAA granted him an additional calendar year.

“The waiver is a long process that required really outlining all of his competitive experience in New Zealand -- his federation, getting documentation and our compliance office really hitting that hard and making sure they dot all the Is and cross all the Ts, so that took a while,” Smith said. “We always knew it would be a possibility, but as a coach you don't want to plan for it.”

With Baxter adding a year, it sets up the hypothetical of him battling his teammate Day for a title, but it’ll come secondary to Northern Arizona’s pursuit of a historical performance. Just four schools have three-peated at the NCAA meet: Arkansas (1998-2000, 1990-93), UTEP (1978-81), Villanova (1966-68) and Drake (1944-46).

“I am going to be there for the sole purpose of the back-to-back-to-back,” Day said. “We will work together until the end, until like the last mile, that's when it is every man for himself.”

Day’s sentiment of the team title first and he and Baxter’s battle second falls in line with what Smith hopes the team will continue to strive for going forward.

“That’s the real key in coaching, the identity that teams develop to become champions. Sometimes they lose that once they become champions. That’s our real test now,” Smith said. “There’s this zen saying, ‘Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.’ The way we got there is what we have to keep doing.”

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Sports Reporter

Cody Bashore serves as the beat writer for Northern Arizona University basketball and football in addition to covering high school sports around Flagstaff for the Arizona Daily Sun.

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