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Battling To The Finish

Northern Arizona’s Abdihamid Nur (left) sprints in a last-second attempt to pass teammate (right) Luis Grijalva Saturday afternoon during the George Kyte Classic at Buffalo Park.

Usually the George Kyte Classic is a relatively easy-going race for the Northern Arizona men’s cross country team, but Saturday’s edition of the annual race at Buffalo Park had a bit faster pace than normal.

Both Lumberjack squads took the top spots at the race,  but there was some unexpected competition for the top men’s team in the country that came from outside of the United States.

The men were tested by a Japanese team from Tokai University, which is located in Tokyo. Most years, the men look for mile splits around the 5- or 5:10-minute marks, but Tokai pushed the pace to a 4:48 mile split.

That came as a bit of a surprise to the Lumberjack men racing in the 4.5-mile race.

“That was fun to have some real good competition with them,” said Lumberjacks runner Ryan Raff, who took first place in 21:52 with a 4:52 pace. “ … I’d say about a quarter mile to a half mile in they started going and we were like, ‘Wow. They are taking it out.’ We were supposed to stay behind our pacer until the mile marker. So we stayed with him, then we heard the first mile split was 4:48 and knew it was fast.

“They definitely gave us a run for our money,” Raff added.

Tokai runners Ryota Natori and Akihiro Gunji rounded out the top three, with Northern Arizona freshman Drew Bosley, who ran unattached Saturday, earning a fourth-place finish in 22:21.1. Lumberjacks runners Abdihamid Nur, Luis Grijalva and Brodey Hasty slotted in at fifth through seventh.

"The pace was really fast," said Lumberjacks director for cross country and track and field Michael Smith. "It made the race a lot harder from the beginning; going at that pace was a tough, grueling effort for our guys. It was good training because it was maybe a little harder than what our guys expected."

The addition of the Tokai runners was a little unexpected, Smith said. The team was training in Flagstaff recently and was added to the George Kyte field.

As is normal for the Lumberjacks, some of the team’s top runners did not compete, such as Geordie Beamish and Blaise Ferro.

But the meet gave a look at Grijalva’s development along with some of the younger runners coming up in the ranks for the squad, such as Raff and Hasty -- who redshirted the 2018 cross season but competed at the NCAA outdoor 5K championships last season.

“This meet is always a chance to practice our template around competition -- what they do the night before, the morning of. And they replicate that template as the stage increases. So it’s a great chance for them to get some practice going through what it feels like to race.”

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Tokai’s results did not affect the NCAA results as they are not an NCAA affiliated school.

PIECES COMING TOGETHER

The men’s program gets much of the attention at Northern Arizona, and rightfully so for its current stretch of three straight NCAA titles.

But there is something in the works that has excitement building around the women’s side of the Lumberjacks program. With highly touted Villanova transfer Taryn O'Neill added to a mix that already includes key returners Pipi Eitel, Hannah Behunin and 2018 Big Sky Freshman of the Year Jesselyn Bries, the women are hoping to make strides this season.

“Rightfully so, our men’s program gets a ton of focus, but the project behind the scenes the last three years has been building the women’s side,” Smith said. “We’ve got pieces now to really do something. It’s taken hard recruiting, lots of training, lots of commitment, but it’s really coming together.”

Eitel and Behunin took first and second just a millisecond apart Saturday, with Eitel taking gold in 15:36.6 and Behunin nabbing the runner-up spot in 15:36.7 in the 2.6-mile race.

Bries was the Lumberjacks' highest finisher at the 2018 Big Sky championships on a seventh-place result.

Last year as sophomores, Behunin placed 32nd at the NCAA Mountain Regionals and Eitel took 50th as the two showed what they can do to help build the women’s program along with Bries and the rest of the athletes.

O’Neill, meanwhile, comes in with NCAA meet experience already. As a freshman at Villanova, she came in fourth on the team and 174th overall at the national meet in 21:37.9. It is unclear when she will make her Northern Arizona debut, but she slots in as likely a top-seven runner for the Lumberjacks.

It’s taken some time, but the pieces are there for the women’s squad to make a splash this season. The squad is the preseason favorite for the Big Sky title after taking second behind Southern Utah in 2018.

“We see the pieces, it’s just kinda a matter of time until we put things together,” Smith said.

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Lance Hartzler can be reached at 556-2251 or at lhartzler@azdailysun.com. Follow him on Twitter @lance_hartz.

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