NAU Cross Country

Northern Arizona's Matt Baxter runs to the finish line in the George Kyte Classic at Buffalo Park earlier this season.

After their first look at one another came with neither side running their full NCAA lineup, Northern Arizona and BYU will face off with the men’s cross country title on the line Saturday in Louisville.

Ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the nation since the end of September, the Lumberjacks and Cougars met for the first time this year at last week’s NCAA Mountain Regional. With Casey Clinger, Daniel Carney and Jonathan Harper on the sidelines for BYU, three of the Cougars’ expected top seven rested as Northern Arizona dominated the meet with 49 points, easily outpacing BYU’s 79.

“They are so far ahead that perhaps they thought if they can rest someone, they would. We sat Luis Grijalva, a freshman, and two weeks before (Peter) Lomong and (Geordie) Beamish had sat,” said Michael Smith, Northern Arizona’s director of cross country. “We just were in the situation where we didn't need to rest people, they were good to go. We kind of looked at the regional meet as part of our training, and we didn’t feel like we had to rest. It’s always a coaching decision, and it’s a tactical one.”

Tyler Day and Matt Baxter finished third and fifth, bunched in a group with BYU’s Rory Linkletter and Connor McMillan, who took second and fourth respectively. With the middle of BYU’s lineup out, however, Northern Arizona dominated and had three more runners cross the line before Kramer Morton took 20th for the Cougars.

Peter Lomong came through in 11th, one of the best finishes of his career, while Geordie Beamish followed a second later in 12th. Andy Trouard rolled through in 18th to end the scoring for Northern Arizona despite Cory Glines coming through in 23rd before BYU’s No. 4, 5 or 6 runner.

STICKING TO THE SCRIPT

Rather than focus on the results of the top challenger for another NCAA title, Smith said his team’s success will come from running as normally as possible at the championship meet, with the 10K set for a 9:45 a.m. start on Saturday.

“I’ve tried to make a decision in coaching this team to not make it so focused on this other team, this BYU focus,” Smith said. “Try to just talk about how we can have our best race, and our best race is going to beat their team. I’ve tried to be careful with my language.”

However, he did admit the competitive atmosphere, faced with the greatest challenge of the season, eventually got the best of him and likely his team for a bit of time.

“It was our first time being in the same place as them, the hair on the back of my neck was up and I am snarling, I am just feeling all competitive. That’s the competitor in me, so I know our guys were feeling that,” Smith said. “They hadn’t seen them, and then the gun goes off and they are out side by side with these guys. I am in some ways telling them, 'Wait, wait, hold back, this isn’t our weekend.' It’s the next weekend, they knew that and they were in control, but I could tell the presence of both teams in one place sort of built that anticipation.”

With Smith preaching the basics ahead of the NCAA meet, Northern Arizona’s runners hope to stick to a normal routine ahead of Saturday. For Trouard, it’ll be his final cross country meet as a Lumberjack.

Among the roster who ran and finished as the runner-up to Colorado in 2013, Trouard will be a crucial part to Northern Arizona repeating as champions. Taking 37th last year, Trouard served as the Lumberjacks’ No. 4 finisher as the team scored 125 points to edge Stanford’s 158.

“It’s the biggest stage I can finish my season on -- which is fun. I am super excited, but at the same time it is still just another meet,” Trouard said. “I have got to do everything I have done the last four years and see if that works.”

BREAKING DOWN LINEUPS

Trouard’s experience, as well as the four other returners from last year’s NCAA lineup, could be the advantage Northern Arizona holds over BYU come Saturday. The Cougars finished seventh a year ago, with Linkletter the top returner after a 32nd-place finish a year ago, with Clayton Young (77th) and Harper (101st) the Cougars’ two other participants from last season expected to run again this year.

“That’s a huge part of cross country, especially coming to the NCAA meet. The hype there is just unbelievable,” Trouard said. “You have fireworks going off at the start, we have got a banquet two nights before, you have got press conferences, it is crazy. So just doing the thing you have been doing all season really gets you into the right mindset, a real calm mindset.”

So far this season, it has been Trouard out in front with Day and Baxter, a recipe Northern Arizona will need to continue if it wants to repeat. Strong finishes by those three, who hung tough in the Wisconsin Nuttycombe Invitational a month ago with a third-fourth-fifth grouping at the finish, will set the stage for the final two scoring runners to beat out their counterparts at BYU.

Grijalva returns to the lineup after sitting out the regional and finished 21st himself in Wisconsin, while Lomong’s 11th-place finish in one of the nation’s toughest regionals puts him in good position heading to NCAAs. Beamish, 17th at Wisconsin, and Glines, 23rd at regionals, also hold solid finishes against top competition during the year.

“If you can go there and just be good there, you will be exceptional. A lot of mistakes are made by people trying to do something different or do something superhuman,” Smith said of the national meet. “The truth of the matter is I know we have a really dependable squad that we will line up, and I think if we can just be solid, we can be good and we can be the team that makes the least mistakes. That's going to reveal a result that's hard to top."

While Northern Arizona won all five of the meets it sent a full men's squad to this year, including the loaded field at the Wisconsin Nuttycombe Invitational, BYU took first in all four of its meets before regionals, including the Pre-Nationals Invitational in Louisville.

“Those four-through-seven positions have a big job, but their job isn't bigger than anyone else's. If they go into this thinking this is all on us, that's a mistake. They need to go there thinking I need to run how I have run all year and that's going to help my team," Smith said.

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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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