Ranked atop the nation for all seven weeks this season, Northern Arizona’s defense of its 2016 men’s cross country title has included only victories this year.
Finishing first in all four of their meets this year, with three runners in the top five of every contest, Northern Arizona’s men haven’t faltered while the target has been on their backs.
“It’s a very peculiar element of this program, that absence of stress, that absence of anxiety, that absence of panic. I think that really allows them to race their best,” said first-year Lumberjacks head coach Michael Smith. “In all sports at high levels there comes expectations. The key for champions is sort of blocking out that outside noise and being able to zero in on the task at hand.”
Smith said the team rarely spends time talking about the NCAA meet during the season or designing workouts with the idea of them being specifically planned for the national meet. Taking the season day by day, Northern Arizona’s head coach added the team tries to have the best Monday before moving on to the best Tuesday possible.
“It’s a real choice in what you're talking about, how you are phrasing things and what you are rewarding,” Smith said. “I think these guys feel there’s expectation on them, but I don’t get the sense that it’s pressure. ... I don’t think they feel like it’s running out of fear or failing as much as it’s running, and they are going to go get what’s theirs. They think they are the best team.”
GROWING TOGETHER QUICKLY
Losing Futsum Zienasellassie and Nathan Weitz from last year’s national championship squad, Matt Baxter said it took the team a few weeks to adjust.
“I’d say it took a little bit for us to get momentum, just having a new coach, having a new method of going into the season. At first, I feel like we just weren't quite clicking how we did last season,” Baxter said. “I think it just took a couple of weeks for us to really start fitting together again as a team.”
By his own admission, it didn’t take long for Baxter and the rest of the Lumberjacks to work it out and build confidence out of the next few meets. Four weeks after opening the season at home with the George Kyte Classic, with Northern Arizona’s top runners breaking the recent norm and competing at Buffalo Park, the Lumberjacks proved the lineup found its flow.
Baxter took first at the Greater Louisville Classic, with Tyler Day, Andy Trouard and Geordie Beamish coming through in succession from second to fourth. Besting second-place Furman by 61 points, Northern Arizona beat the field at the Wisconsin Nuttycombe Invitational even more dramatically two weeks later.
With Trouard, Day and Baxter finishing third, fourth and fifth separated by just a second, the trio only lost to Syracuse’s Justyn Knight and Stanford’s Grant Fisher, who, according to FloTrack.org, rank as the top two individuals.
“Toward that end there, we were just kicking in this little pod of us, it was Grant Fisher who has been to an Olympic Trials qualifier, you have Justyn Knight who has represented his home nation of Canada in the past outdoor worlds, and then there’s Baxter, Andy and me,” Day said. “Just to see two of my other teammates up there with me grinding it out with these top guys, it is just kind of like you know that we can keep up with the best of the best, we can do this.”
While Zienasellassie led the way for Northern Arizona last year, challenging to finish atop the leaderboard throughout the year, Baxter, Day and Trouard have finished inside the top five of all four meets this season.
Day said the willingness for multiple runners to push themselves forward has been a welcomed development, with the results proving Northern Arizona’s toughness.
Capping off the first two months of the season with a win at the Big Sky Conference Championships, as Day took his first career individual title after a pair of third-place finishes as a freshman and sophomore, Smith said Northern Arizona came out of its toughest portion of the year with a high performance level.
“Always into September and October, you are really walking a fine line. Your training is still at a high level, but now you are racing at a really high level, too,” Smith said. “When you get into November the training is kind of done, so that midseason is a real crucial time to keep people healthy, and we are fortunate we didn’t have and we haven’t had any full-blown injuries.”
While dispatching of rival No. 12 Southern Utah at Big Sky, Day and Baxter were left to battle out for first place at the conference meet. After following the team’s gameplan, Day’s 23:21 and Baxter’s 23:22 ended up nearly 40 seconds ahead of Southern Utah’s top finisher, Mike Tate.
Close friends on and off the course, Day and Baxter were left to battle it out for the individual title after locking up the top finishes needed for the team victory.
“There can only be one winner, so usually our thing is if it comes down to it, we are both going to gouge each other’s eyes out towards the end,” Day said. “Working on my kick and really working on my arm movement and form and such, and I just ended up crossing the finish line first.”
While Northern Arizona sits atop the national rankings, the Lumberjacks actually enter the Mountain Regional meet in second behind No. 2 BYU. With No. 5 Colorado and No. 8 Colorado State filling up the national rankings as well, the top four region schools set up a nationals preview Friday in Logan, Utah.
With BYU sweeping the top five spots at the West Coast Conference Championships meet, the Cougars achieved the same feat Northern Arizona did a year ago at Big Sky.
“It is hard for us to not compare where we are now to last year,” Baxter said. “We went into our conference meet having last year completely swept. We had six guys cross the line before everyone else, so there’s always that thing where you kind of want to top that, but we are running against guys who have redshirted or weren't there last cross country season. It was always going to be a lot tougher race for us then.”
Helping prevent Northern Arizona from potentially repeating its sweep at the conference, Geordie Beamish and Peter Lomong each sat out the meet and remained in Flagstaff to rest up and remain on a training schedule. In their place, Cory Glines returned to a primary spot in the Northern Arizona lineup with a 10th-place finish at Big Sky closing in on his fourth-place finish from last season.
“He’s someone who has been coming along all season,” Smith said. “It kind of gave him the opportunity to really play a part in that conference win and that’s perfect timing for his confidence now heading into region. We will reinsert back those guys who sat at conference and then with Glines' confidence coming along in that race of his, I think it’s kind of a perfect storm right now for us.”
Regardless of who runs for the Lumberjacks, they know they will be in for a test Friday -- as well as eight days later at the NCAA meet. With their schedule filled with nationally ranked teams throughout the season, Baxter said those contests were perfect for the team. Rather than finish in packs over and over again throughout the season, Baxter added the challenges the team faced throughout the year leave any others as familiar at this point.
“We are all in this together and we are definitely all trying to be on the positive end, just trying to keep a clear mind,” Day said. “It’s obviously going to be tough -- you are trying to defend a national title -- but you just have to keep calm, roll with the punches and you’ll be able to get through.”