Highlighting an eventful year for Northern Arizona University, a second straight NCAA men’s cross country title came with just six weeks left in the calendar year.
The Lumberjacks’ repeat came with the largest margin of victory at the national meet since 2012. Topping second-place Portland and third-place BYU, Northern Arizona’s 74 points stood 53 better than the runner-up as Michael Smith ended his first full year as the team’s head coach sweeping coaching awards within the conference, region and nation.
With two runners finishing inside the top three, including Matt Baxter’s second-place finish and Tyler Day in third, Northern Arizona landed all five of its scoring runners with All-American honors as Peter Lomong, Andy Trouard and Geordie Beamish finished eighth, 35th and 40th respectively.
Northern Arizona wrapped up the season with the title after ranking atop the nation’s top 25 for the entire year, finishing undefeated in its six meets as a team, and now will look ahead to the 2018 season with a three-peat on the line. Just four other schools have achieved that feat, with Arkansas the most recent to do so in 1998-2000 and 1990-93, along with UTEP (1978-81), Villanova (1966-68) and Drake (1944-46).
Baxter, Day, Lomong and Beamish will return for the Lumberjacks next season, along with Luis Grijalva, who finished 60th as a true freshman, as Northern Arizona seeks to further its place in running history.
A DRAMA-FILLED FOOTBALL SEASON
In his 20th year at the helm of the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks, head coach Jerome Souers found himself effectively fired and rehired within a two-month span and working under the direction of two different vice presidents for intercollegiate athletics.
Following an 0-2 start, Lisa Campos announced Souers would wrap up his career as the team’s head coach at the end of the season, a decision the two came to during the offseason, according to Campos.
While looking for Souers’ replacement, Northern Arizona began another search as Campos left for the same position at the University of Texas at San Antonio less than two months after the press conference announcing Souers' fate.
Campos’ Nov. 17 departure began a hectic stretch of 10 days for Northern Arizona’s athletics department and football program, with the cross country national title coming the very next day. A 48-20 loss at Southern Utah, also on Nov. 18, seemingly spoiled Northern Arizona’s chance at a FCS playoff bid, only for a the Lumberjacks to be given a home playoff game against the San Diego Toreros a day later. The run of news continued Nov. 20, as university president Rita Cheng announced Souers would return as the team’s head coach after all, with the coach’s one-year extension becoming final in December.
While the playoff appearance did not go as hoped, falling 41-10 on Nov. 25, Northern Arizona’s football program found its new athletic director less than three weeks later. The hiring of Mike Marlow on Dec. 13 provided Souers a new but familiar boss, as both were in Missoula at Montana from 1991-95.
EARLY SUCCESS UNDER A NEW DIRECTION
Before Campos left Northern Arizona, she hired Loree Payne in April to take the reins of the women’s basketball program. Holding a 69-16 combined record over her final three years with Division III Puget Sound, Payne arrived to coach a Northern Arizona team searching for its first winning record since 2006-07.
With just three players who played significant minutes returning and an influx of new additions to the roster, Northern Arizona finished its nonconference schedule at 3-8, but earned the program’s first win over a Pac-12 team in more than two decades.
Bringing a fast-paced, offensive-oriented style to Flagstaff, Payne and the Lumberjacks showed off the system against Arizona in early December. Scoring 84 points and hitting 8 of 13 from 3-point range, Northern Arizona rolled past its in-state rival with an 18-point victory.
Second in the Big Sky with 75.5 points per game, the Lumberjacks sit with two players among the conference’s top 10 scorers. Seniors Olivia Lucero (16.6) and Kenna McDavis (16.5) are eighth and ninth as the team turns to Big Sky play beginning Dec. 28 at Montana.
KEEPING THE TITLES COMING
While the margin of victory was the smallest in the school’s run of four straight Western Athletic Conference titles, Northern Arizona’s swim and dive team sent off a trio of athletes finishing a perfect 4-for-4.
Alexa Geiger, Urte Kazakeviciute and Sara Lenhoff wrapped up their careers in the pool with titles in each season, while Northern Arizona’s 615.5 points edged New Mexico State’s 551. The victory in late February came at the end of an emotional season for Northern Arizona, with swimmer Hayley Edmond’s death due to cancer the previous September serving as a driving force.
With Northern Arizona winning seven golds at the championship meet, Geiger and Tonya Kurach took first on the diving boards while Kate Bier, Claire Hammond, Kimmy Richter and Alina Staffeldt combined to take a gold in a relay. Richter or Staffeldt each added a pair of individual golds as well.
Kurach continued her season after the conference meet, finishing seventh on the 1-meter board at the NCAA Zone E diving championships held in Flagstaff, and ended up as the second Northern Arizona diver to reach the NCAA championships, where she took 49th in the nation.
JOINING THE FUN
While Northern Arizona sent the men’s team to Louisville to defend their national championship, Paige Gilchrist represented the women at the national meet with an 81st-place finish in her final cross country season.
Battling through injuries during her Lumberjacks career, Gilchrist wrapped up her final season with an individual Big Sky Conference championship. Winning by nearly 11 seconds, Gilchrist moved on to the Mountain Regional where she took eighth to earn her at-large bid to the national meet.
A TITLE ON THE LINKS
Among the many individual titles Northern Arizona earned during the season, Sofia Anokhina came away with one herself in April.
At the Big Sky Conference championships in Boulder City, Nevada, Anokhina led at the end of all three rounds. Shooting a 72 in the first round, Anokhina followed with a 71 and held on despite a 75 to wrap up the tournament.
Finishing with a 2-over 218 total, Anokhina edged a pair of second-place finishers by three strokes and became Northern Arizona’s sixth individual champion in school history and the first since the 2010 season.
Winning the title in only her sophomore season, Anokhina continued her successful year with a second-place finish at the 2017 Austrian International Ladies Amateur Championship, her second consecutive Russian Amateur Championship, the Russian Closed Championship and a spot on Russia’s World University Games team.
Continuing a nearly decade-long reign over the Big Sky Conference, the Northern Arizona men’s track and field team won its sixth straight indoor title and eighth in the past nine years in February, with Baxter and Day also moving on to run the 5K at the NCAA indoor meet.
Northern Arizona’s women also reclaimed the indoor title, with Brooke Anderson qualifying for the NCAA indoor meet in the weight throw. The women followed the early success with their second straight outdoor title, and third of the past four seasons, in May. Baxter, Anderson and Adam Keenan all reached the NCAA outdoor meet, with all three leaving as All-Americans. Keenan took 11th in the weight throw, Baxter earned a seventh-place finish in the 10K, and Anderson wrapped up the track season with a national runner-up finish in the weight throw.