While Northern Arizona won the NCAA men’s cross country championship with 74 points, 53 better than second-place Portland, it did so without needing its freshman to score in the most pressure filled moment of the year.
Yet Luis Grijalva finished 60th, scoring 51 points, high enough to still give Northern Arizona the title even if Matt Baxter had failed to finish second overall.
“When I say there's no meet like it, emotionally there's no meet like it. It is madness, it is just chaotic, it is loud, it is messy,” Mike Smith, Northern Arizona’s director of cross country, said about the NCAA meet.
Smith said Grijalva’s 60th-place finish in his first experience will pave the way for his career ahead. Should the freshman eventually finish as an All-American, it’ll be because of the early success Grijalva had in November.
Adding that runners capable of an All-American result end up finishing 250th after breaking mentally, Smith said Grijalva’s ability to keep it together and keep pace with the team’s other runners bodes well going forward. Teammate Geordie Beamish rounded out the All-American honors in 40th, finishing in 30:01.12, as Grijalva’s 30:19.32 missed the honor by only 18 seconds, a similar distance between Justyn Knight in first and Dillon Maggard in sixth.
“To me that’s a sign of maturity. A lot of people get there, but they don’t get there three months into college,” said Smith, adding Grijalva is already on track to take over as the team’s leader in the future. “They get there in a year. It’s two or three years into college to really kind of learn that maturity. The fact that he has that right away, that says a lot about him.”
While Baxter, Tyler Day, Peter Lomong, Andy Trouard and Beamish ultimately ended up as the scorers for Northern Arizona at the NCAA meet, Grijalva spent time as Northern Arizona’s No. 5 runner during the season, aiding in victories at the Greater Louisville Classic, the Wisconsin Nuttycombe Invitational and Big Sky Conference Championships.
“For Luis, it was always going to be tough for him coming in as a freshman. He is on the best team in the nation; I do not envy his position in that,” Baxter said. “As much as I didn’t want to talk to him about that throughout the season, especially when he was our fifth man for a lot of races, he handled it so well. To finish 60th for his first year, that guy is going to do some really special stuff for us in the future.”
While Grijalva worked his way into Northern Arizona’s lineup after running unattached at the team’s George Kyte Classic at Buffalo Park in September, many of the other younger Lumberjacks struggled to find time on the course in any of the team’s crucial meets.
With 19 men officially on the roster, including six true freshmen and three sophomores, Smith said the battle for time is known when they enter the school.
Smith said he considered redshirting some of the team's upperclassman, including Day and Lomong, under the assumption Baxter would finish his eligibility in 2017. The absence of the team's lead runners would have allowed Smith to run his large group of underclassman to gain experience for the years ahead.
With a waiver granted by the NCAA allowing Baxter to return in 2018, Smith said that's no longer an option with the program seeking a third straight national title. Northern Arizona will look to become only the fifth school to three-peat as men’s cross country champs, with another run of challenging invitationals ahead in 2018 for its large group of returners.
While Northern Arizona’s core group competed in nearly all of the major events, resulting in a perfect six for six in team wins, last year’s recruiting classes settled for smaller events inside the state. Along with Grijalva, freshmen Elliot Gindi, Jack Shea, Beau Prince and Joey Defeo ran unattached at George Kyte, with the latter four also doing so at the Arizona State Invitational the week before the Big Sky Conference meet.
“One of the drawbacks of having the best team in the country is I have got to get these guys experience, but it is really hard to make this traveling squad,” Smith said. “Some of the people that are here at home would be on everyone else's top seven in the country. That's part of our recruiting process -- those guys all chose to be here believing that they are going to make it and who they are at the end of four years, by trying to make it, is going to be the best version of their athletics selves.”