Though Northern Arizona is sending a school-record six athletes to the 2018 NCAA Indoor National Championships, a few of them sweated out the announcement in the final days.
While Brooke Andersen, Paige Gilchrist and Andy Trouard entered the conference championship weekend comfortably inside the top 16 of their respective events, Jasmine Malone, Ashley Taylor and Matt Baxter found their way to this week’s meet in College Station, Texas, in a variety of ways.
“The conference weekend, it was all our focus and energy to try to repeat and win those team titles,” said Lumberjacks head coach Mike Smith, who was named the Mountain Region Women's Indoor Coach of the Year on Monday. “You see what has yielded from a really beautiful season: all these qualifications across the board in all these events. Those are sort of products of the process we put in place all season long.”
Malone reached the NCAA meet thanks to a career-best run of 52.39 to win the Big Sky Conference 400-meter title in Saturday’s finals. Her previous career best, a 53.71 run at the Don Kirby Invitational in New Mexico two weeks earlier, would have placed Malone around 56th nationally.
“I definitely knew that was a really good time. I was very impressed, I just went out there with confidence and I knew I could go strong into that race,” Malone said, adding she felt the time could possibly bring her into national contention after finishing.
Malone’s Big Sky winning time placed her in a tie for 10th nationally and as the best runner from a mid-major conference.
Already an accomplished 400-meter hurdler with two Big Sky golds and a silver, Taylor added a gold in the 800m at the indoor meet. While her winning time of 2:07.23 did not top her 2:04.85 run at the Iowa State Classic, she reached the NCAA meet with some help by those ahead of her.
Sitting 18th nationally, Taylor jumped into the 16th and final spot as New Hampshire’s Elinor Purrier passed on the event in favor of the mile where she is the nation’s leader and Virginia Tech’s Laurie Barton has her school competing in the distance medley relay.
“At first my coach told me I was kicked out as a joke. And I was expecting that,” Taylor said laughing. “They told me to just have faith and I did.”
While Taylor reached the NCAA Division I West Preliminary in the 400m hurdles in all three of her outdoor seasons, the senior never surpassed the round.
“I kind of feel like finally, this finally happened. In three regional meets I didn't run very well, so it was very discouraging,” Taylor said. “But I knew I could do it, I believe I am meant to be there. So it was just about time that I did.”
Lastly, the nation’s No. 2 finisher at the NCAA Cross Country Championships in November also found himself as the final qualifier for the men’s 3000m. Joining teammate Andy Trouard, who enters with the No. 2 time in the nation behind cross country national champion Justyn Knight, Baxter’s 7:53.37 at the Iowa State Classic edged out Oregon’s Cooper Teare by .29 of a second.
The time was easily Baxter’s career best in the event he’s run just a handful of times for the Lumberjacks, as he previously qualified for the 5000m run at NCAA indoors last season.
“It is definitely going to be different. At the start of the season I wanted to qualify in the 3k as well, so it is something I have kind of been preparing for a little bit,” said Baxter, who said he had hoped to qualify for the 5000m at the Big Sky meet. “My sole focus can be on this 3K and just trying to get after it there. I don’t get that many opportunities to run a shorter distance like this, so it is something I am looking forward to.”
Along with the 3000m where he will be joined by Baxter, Trouard added another event to his indoor slate as he qualified for the 5000m thanks to a 14:20.54, gold-medal winning time at the Big Sky Conference Championships in Flagstaff. The time placed him 10th nationally after being converted.
Meanwhile, Andersen tossed a career-best 22.25m on her first throw at the Big Sky Championships, beating a 21.95m recorded a few weeks earlier at the Don Kirby Invitational. Finishing 11th at indoors last year in what is considered her second-best field event, Andersen enters with the seventh best distance in the nation.
Gilchrist, a national qualifier for cross country herself in November, qualified 13th for the 5000m with a career-best 15:45.76 at the Iowa State Classic. While her mile time slipped out of the top 16 in the nation, finishing 21st overall and just a second off of 16th, her 5000m time punched her second ticket to an NCAA event this academic year.
Malone and Taylor will run in the semifinals of their respective events Friday at 5:40 and 6:25 p.m. respectively, with the finals set for Saturday at 4 and 4:40 p.m. Trouard and Gilchrist will run the 5000m races at 7:05 and 7:25 p.m. Friday, with Trouard returning to the track with Baxter at 5:10 p.m. Saturday. Andersen will begin throwing at 3:30 p.m. Saturday afternoon.