Matt Baxter still takes an occasional shot at BYU on his Twitter account.

The banter is something his new NAZ Elite teammate Rory Linkletter, a BYU product, is familiar with after the two spent their college careers competing for rivaling programs.

NAZ Elite head coach Ben Rosario spoke with the two runners before signing Linkletter to a rookie contract last week, making sure there were no lingering effects from the rivalry that might hinder the two from being amicable teammates.

“That’s kind of sports. You have to, I’m not going to say hate, but sort of dislike your rivals to get in the right mindset when you are competing against them -- especially for younger athletes," Rosario said. "Once you step back, you kind of see that it’s all manufactured in our minds, and at the end of the day they want to be really good, and are both great team guys and have to realize they are now on the same team.”

Baxter was a major key to Northern Arizona's current run of three consecutive national cross country titles. While Northern Arizona was piling up the championships, BYU and Linkletter were battling to knock off the Lumberjacks, with the Cougars finishing as runner-ups in 2018 at nationals and taking third as a team in 2017.

Baxter finished second overall and first for the Lumberjacks in 2017 at the NCAA Cross Country Championships, and he placed 15th overall in 2018 and 11th in 2016. Linkletter crossed the finish line in 22nd place overall in 2018's installment of the race, 39th in 2017 and 32nd in 2016.

Moreover, Northern Arizona and BYU each had three runners finish in the top 25 of the 2018 cross country title race.

“I think our sport doesn’t have a lot of that, but it’s great to see," Linkletter said of running rivalries at the college level.

The rivalry made its way to the track as well, as both Baxter and Linkletter were 5K and 10K racers during their collegiate careers.

Linkletter said he remembers how his college races had a different feel when Baxter and his former Lumberjacks teammate Tyler Day were in attendance.

“I really want to beat this guy, and that’s how it was every time," Linkletter said of racing against Baxter. "If NAU wasn’t in the race, there was a different vibe compared to if they were in the race, for me.”

Linkletter won the NCAA West Preliminary Round 10,000 meters in 2019 with a time of 29:14.29, with two other BYU teammates at the time taking fourth and fifth. The year before he was the second-place finisher, taking the silver while battling down the stretch with a tight pack that included fifth-place finisher Baxter.

“It was me and my teammates, basically, versus Baxter and Day," Linkletter said. "They became such a strong point of the rivalry for me mostly because we ran the same events on the track and would see each other basically year-round.”

After so many races competing against each other, now the rookie duo shares the common goal of winning for NAZ Elite.

"Both of us were not shy about calling each other's team out, be it subtly or not. This fueled a healthy and sometimes vocal rivalry between the two of us," Baxter said in an email Wednesday. "For Rory to move to Flagstaff, which could be described as enemy territory, takes a lot of guts. My NAU boys will be sure to make him feel at home here. ... I know that Rory is going to fight for HOKA NAZ Elite like he did for BYU. Just like I will as I did for NAU. That is all that matters."

Baxter joined NAZ Elite in early January and was one of two male runners out of four total in that signing class to stick with the pro team. Linkletter, meanwhile, and Portland product Nick Hauger filled the vacancies.

“All three of those guys were part of the NCAA storyline the last couple of years," Rosario said of his rookies.

Portland finished in third place as a team at last season's NCAA Cross Country Championships, a spot lower than its 2017 result. Additionally, Hauger won the 2018 West Coast Conference cross country race, beating a pack of four BYU runners that helped their team take the gold and included Linkletter.

Baxter and Linkletter have had the chance to train together in Flagstaff as teammates, even doing a podcast for NAZ Elite together on Wednesday. They've only had about a week of workouts together, but Baxter can tell the two are on the right path.

"In that time I already get a sense that he will be a great fit for the group," Baxter said. "A group which I am also a new member of considering I have only just arrived back in Flagstaff since signing in January. I am excited to get stuck into some hard workouts together. He is a fierce competitor, as am I, and I know that is going to make for some fun training sessions."

Still, Baxter and Linkletter could find themselves competing against each other down the stretch of a race for a podium spot while both wearing the same team bibs. But NAZ Elite wouldn't have a problem with that kind of rivalry. 


NAZ Elite's Scott Fauble will return to racing for the first time since taking seventh place at the Boston Marathon in April where he was the first American to cross the finish line in 2:09:09. Fauble is set to run Saturday's Beach to Beacon 10K in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. ... Linkletter will make his pro debut in the Pan Am Games 10,000m on Aug. 9 and will be competing for his native country of Canada.

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Mike Hartman can be reached at 556-2255 or at mhartman@azdailysun.com. Follow him on Twitter @AZDS_Hartman.


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